Wake school changes will be daunting

Magnets? All-year calendar? Reassignments? Pitfalls await a new board bent on change.

Staff WritersOctober 11, 2009 

  • As candidates who challenged current board policies try to make good on their campaign promises, the questions to be addressed include:

    How can leaders preserve the special status of magnet schools if neighborhood schools are stressed?

    Can the school system change to a neighborhood schools assignment model in time for the 2010-2011 school year?

    What will happen to the 40,000 students who attend year-round schools?

    What should school leaders do about the next round of student reassignments to accommodate growth?

— Winners in the Wake County school board elections last week promised neighborhood schools, an end to busing students for diversity, and no more frequent reassignments for students.

These concepts proved potent for the campaign, but they may present expensive, tough obstacles when the new board members take office in December and try to deliver. Their pledges present practical problems, from reworking inner-city magnet schools that may fill up with students from surrounding neighborhoods, to deciding whether to continue with plans to fill four new schools next year.

The newcomers will also have to decide quickly whether to start on the promised neighborhood schools plan for North Carolina's largest school district. Such far-reaching change would sharply overhaul the way Wake's 140,000 students are assigned to schools, causing one more disruption for families that candidates promised to end.

Greater use of neighborhood schools and the end of mandatory year-round schools could also threaten promises not to raise taxes.

The election Tuesday swept three neighborhood schools advocates to outright victory in suburban district contests: Chris Malone, Deborah Prickett and Debra Goldman were endorsed by the Wake County Republican Party. Two other candidates, John Tedesco and Cathy Truitt, also promised to change the status quo. Tedesco, also endorsed by the GOP, and Truitt pointedly declared the death of forced busing for diversity. They meet Nov. 3 in a runoff that holds the promise of a revamped ruling majority on the nine-member board.

So far, the winners hold fast to the pledges that won them office, but seem light on specifics.

"It's going to be important to look at this very, very closely," said Goldman, a retired emergency medical technician who won big in the District 9 race to represent most of Cary on the board. "Especially as someone who has pushed for stability, I would be the last one to say 'Everybody goes to a new school this year.'"

Candidates who lost last week say some of the winners' promises won't be easily fulfilled.

"I intend to hold those people that are elected accountable for their promises," said Lois Nixon, a retired environmental educator who lost to Goldman. "In two years, we will have another referendum on how successful they are."

Magnet schools' future

If Wake County restores neighborhood schools, the change would have a dramatic effect on the magnet school program. Most of the county's magnet schools, with special areas of emphasis such as performing arts and foreign languages, were sited in lower-income areas near downtown Raleigh specifically to integrate and diversify them.

Many children who live in these urban neighborhoods are now bused to the suburbs to free spots for suburban students drawn to the highly touted magnets.

A return to neighborhood schools would mean that magnet schools would have to absorb the returning local children and potentially jettison the suburban students. When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system ended busing for diversity in 2002, some schools lost their magnet programs to accommodate children from the neighborhood.

Wake's Enloe High School, one of the nation's most highly regarded in several surveys, educates a combination of students who live nearby and others who travel from across the county to take advantage of the advanced programs at the East Raleigh magnet.

Laura Brooks, who lives in West Raleigh, is hoping the board won't change Enloe's magnet program before her daughter graduates in four years.

"I hope they have enough sense not to mess with the magnet program," she said.

James Sposato, the principal of Powell Elementary School, a magnet school in East Raleigh, is trying to reassure parents of his students that any changes won't be immediate.

"It's not going to be overhauled overnight," Sposato said.

New plan in 2010?

For the new majority, another central question is how quickly the board should try to move students into neighborhood schools. Such change is likely to have sweeping consequences, as shown by the experience in Charlotte, the state's second-largest school district.

In 2002, the first year that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools stopped busing for diversity and adopted a plan for neighborhood schools, at least 25,000 students changed schools.

Chris Malone, a new member of the Wake school board who easily won the District 1 seat to represent Wake Forest and eastern Wake, says he wants to see if a new plan could be in place as soon as the 2010-11 school year. If this were done, it would pre-empt the student reassignment plan the board adopted this year to fill schools through the 2011-12 school year.

Malone realizes that the initial switch back to neighborhood schools would cause upheaval.

"Everyone who wants to go to neighborhood schools that's not will have to be reassigned," Malone said. "They're prepared for that. They're willing to pay the price."

But Kevin Hill, the school board chairman, said there wouldn't be enough time once the new board members take office to draft such a sweeping reassignment, get public comment and start it for the next school year.

Deborah Prickett, a new board member who easily won the District 7 seat (northwest Raleigh and Morrisville), said the board might want to phase in the changes.

Year-round schools?

Throughout the campaign, the new board members said they would end mandatory year-round attendance. They've talked about converting some of the schools that were switched to a year-round calendar in 2007.

But year-round schools save on construction costs because they can serve more students than traditional-calendar schools. Critics warned that cutting back on year-round schools and having more neighborhood schools will lead to higher costs and perhaps higher taxes.

But school board member Ron Margiotta thinks the concerns are overblown, pointing to all the empty seats in year-round schools. A return to the days of 7,000 new students a year would test the county's ability to avoid raising taxes to pay for more neighborhood schools and fewer year-round schools, but Margiotta doesn't foresee that happening for a while.

"Why should we make parents stay in schools they don't want to be in?" said Margiotta, who was not up for election last week and could join the new board members in forming a ruling majority.

Needed: time, patience

Local politicians and school-system veterans say the reconstituted board will need time to revamp the system.

"There's a whole lot for them to learn, and a whole lot of that is on the job," said Claude E. Pope Jr., chairman of the Wake County Republican Party. "I don't expect the ship to turn around 180 degrees in the next three weeks. They made a lot of pledges and they've got a lot of people hoping they can do a lot of things."

Hill is also urging the new board members to take their time, but perhaps for different reasons. Hill, who was not up for election this year, is among the supporters of the diversity policy who could move from the majority to the minority after the new members take office.

"I don't want to presume what the new board will do," Hill said. "But I feel that making decisions that are not throughly vetted would be irresponsible."

Margiotta said the new board majority will listen to parents before making any major changes.

"Nobody wants to blow up the school system," Margiotta said. "There are good things going on around the school system that we'd like to hang on to."

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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