The future of Wake County's year-round school program could be decided in the next few weeks -- not by a panel of judges, but by voters.
Candidates who support neighborhood schools and criticize Wake's school diversity policy and annual round of student reassignments have also embraced voluntary attendance at year-round calendar schools as part of their campaign message. These candidates could back Wake away from its decision, legalized in May by the state Supreme Court, to send students to year-round schools without securing parents' permission.
The issue is even more heated in the District 7 race, where some of the most passionate debates about year-round schools have pitted parents against parents. This two-candidate district race, featuring a supporter of the school board's year-round school assignments and an opponent, is a clear-cut reflection of that conflict.
"Parents want stability, calendar choices and consideration for the individual students," said Deborah Prickett, a candidate who coordinates character education programs for the state Department of Public Instruction, at a forum this week. "One size doesn't fit all."
Prickett's call for voluntary year-round schools is one of the themes that critics hope will help them on Election Day, Oct. 6. Four of the nine Wake school board seats will be on the ballot. Opponents of current board policies need to win all four seats to gain a majority on the board.
Supporters of the current school board have defended sending students to year-round schools as a painful but necessary step to deal with growth.
For year-round schools
"I support year-round schools," said Karen Simon, a grants manager with the N.C. Governor's Crime Commission, who is running against Prickett in District 7. "I think they accommodate growth and make good economic sense."
Covering northwest Raleigh, north Cary and Morrisville, District 7 has been represented by Patti Head for the past eight years. Head isn't running again and has not endorsed either candidate. Only one incumbent, Horace Tart in District 2, is standing for re-election in the four school board contests.
One of the most contentious issues that Head dealt with was the conversion of 22 schools to a year-round calendar in 2007. Supporters say construction costs are cut because year-round schools can hold more students than traditional-calendar schools.
Before the conversions and the decision to open all new elementary and middle schools on a year-round calendar, most students attended year-round schools voluntarily by applying for a seat.
Since then, a majority of year-round students attend those schools because they're assigned to them. Parents can apply for a child to leave a year-round school, but the school district does not have to grant the request.
Prickett said she'd lobby to put some year-round schools, such as District 7's Leesville Road elementary and middle schools, back on a traditional calendar. She points to the large numbers of empty seats at year-round schools as a sign that not all the schools need to remain on the calendar.
Because the recession slowed Wake's growth more than expected, some year-round schools now have fewer students than they did when they were on a traditional calendar. But Simon said the additional capacity for the year-round schools will help when growth picks up again.
In addition to differing on year-round schools, Prickett and Simon also find themselves on the opposite ends of the neighborhood schools debate and the diversity policy, which aims to bolster the overall academic performance of individual schools by limiting the percentage of low-income students at any one school.
'Diversity isn't working'
Prickett argues that Wake's efforts to balance the percentage of low-income students at individual schools have failed. She says most of the state's 115 school districts have a higher graduation rate than Wake for low-income students.
"The diversity policy isn't working," Prickett said. "We've endured a decade of shuffling students around as it hasn't helped the very students it was supposed to help."
Prickett argues that neighborhood schools will promote greater stability and improved academic achievement. She argues that she can relate to parents because her son has been reassigned multiple times, including for the 2010-11 school year.
Although Prickett has been an educator for 26 years, the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, which represents 5,000 school district employees, endorsed Simon.
Simon says her government experience and her formal education in public administration and business administration qualify her to be a financial watchdog of the school system.
Simon defends the district's diversity policy as a factor in its academic success. She points to increases in Wake's average SAT score and in the rate of students who are passing Advanced Placement exams.
"I would not suggest dismantling policies in a school system with a proven track record of successes," Simon said.