GARNER — Wake County school board members and their supporters got an earful of criticism Wednesday about the district's diversity policy.
Some people attending the Wake Education Regional Roundtable challenged the effectiveness of efforts to limit the percentage of low-income students at individual schools through busing.
Others complained that schools in Garner are shouldering a disproportionately high percentage of low-income students compared with other parts of Wake County.
"If you're going to have a countywide diversity policy, then do it," said Amy White of Garner, a former school board member.
The district tries to limit the percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches to 40 percent of a school's enrollment. The policy is based on research showing a school's academic performance suffers when it has a very high percentage of poor students.
Some of the most bitter debates about the policy have emanated from Garner, where the assignments of low-income students from Southeast Raleigh have pushed the majority of the town's schools well over the 40 percent target.
Over the past year, Garner leaders have threatened to withhold approval on school construction and renovation projects to try to force the school system to respond.
Wednesday's forum, co-hosted by the Wake Education Partnership and the Garner Chamber of Commerce and held at the Eagle Ridge Golf Club, focused on the district's diversity policy. More than 60 people attended.
Ann Denlinger, president of the Wake Education Partnership, an advocacy group for public education, argued that the diversity policy is needed to promote a strong local economy, teacher quality and student achievement.
Denlinger, former superintendent of Durham schools, pointed to problems recruiting teachers to high-poverty schools. The Durham district does not have a similar diversity policy.
Remarks from the crowd were pointed.
Scott Benrube, career development coordinator at Leesville Road Middle School in North Raleigh, said the diversity policy has led to students going to school much farther from home. That makes it harder for parents to become involved, he said.
Patrice Lee, a co-founder of Wake CARES, a parent group that has sued the school district over year-round schools, questioned the validity of the policy, pointing out that Wake doesn't track how it affects individual students.
"We're being strongly driven by what's good for the school system and not for the individual children," Lee said.
School board member Horace Tart was asked why Garner's schools are out of balance with the district's policy. He blamed it on large numbers of low-income families moving into the southern part of the county.
"We have to make sure we don't become resegregated," said Tart, whose district includes Garner.
Enough people wanted to talk about Garner that half the crowd remained for 90 minutes after the forum ended. Residents said they've had to make a fuss about the policy to get the district to listen.
Denlinger agreed that Garner has too many low-income students. "We believe in balance for everybody, not that some communities should be balanced and others should not," she said.
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