School signs may come down in Wake

Raleigh might bill the district if schedule changes next year nullify the signs.

Staff WriterNovember 9, 2009 

— Recently elected Wake County school board members say it's "highly probable" that they'll end the district's controversial Wednesday early-release policy within the next year, a move that would please many parents but make obsolete more than $20,000 in new school zone signs.

Raleigh and the state Department of Transportation are still changing more than 800 signs that notify motorists to slow down near schools during the times when classes start and end. That's being done to accommodate the rejiggered schedule caused by early-release Wednesdays, which the outgoing school board passed last spring.

City officials in Raleigh, home to 109 of Wake's 159 schools, warn they just might bill the school system for these sign changes. And that sets the stage for a second invoice should the board's new majority decide to kill the early-release policy and force yet another sign change.

The early-release policy is meant to give teachers more time to plan. It mandates that Wake students be released an hour early on Wednesdays and, at most schools, kept an extra 10 minutes the rest of the week. The new signs reflect each day's bell schedules by listing different times drivers must drive slower.

Many parents oppose early release, dubbed Wacky Wednesdays by some, because it forces them to make special day care or transportation arrangements for their children on that day.

Wake County voters elected four new board members this fall who are critical of early releases and other Wake policies such as mandatory busing for diversity.

With existing board member Ron Margiotta, the new members will form a ruling majority that could reverse the early-release policy as early as next year, said John Tedesco, who won the District2 runoff election on Tuesday.

Board leans toward change

"I can tell you what I've heard and what the others have heard is an overwhelming number of parents who are not happy with this, and we'll do our best to represent the parents," Tedesco said. "I could not imagine that this would go on in the next academic year."

If that happens, Raleigh and NCDOT workers will again have to change the signs to reflect new bell schedules. Raleigh and Cary are responsible for their own signs, and the NCDOT is in charge of signs at the remaining Wake schools.

Cary didn't have to make sign changes, though. The town has lights that flash when the school zone speed limit is enforced.

In Raleigh, city staffers have never had to change so many school zone signs at one time.

Swamped in Raleigh

Usually, only a few bell schedules change each year, so Raleigh, Cary and NCDOT staffers don't meet with Wake County to review changes until August, a few weeks before traditional schools begin.

After this year's meeting, NCDOT had to design a new sign, and Raleigh had to order more than 800 after the sketch was complete. The city didn't get the signs until October, and it has installed more than 90 percent of them.

All of Raleigh's sign installation and paint crews are pitching in to help, often working overtime.

"A change like that, though small for [the school board] has a significant impact on other entities," said Jed Niffenegger, a Raleigh senior transportation engineer. "Our staff has done a great job to hurry and make the changes."

Niffenegger said Raleigh usually recycles old street signs that are damaged or obsolete. But it's keeping the old signs this year in case the policy is reversed.

Who picks up the tab?

NCDOT officials, too, are prepared to change the signs again if the policy is reversed. Engineer Ron Garrett said the agency likely will cover the cost of its signs.

School officials weren't sure what they'll do if Raleigh bills them for another round of sign changes. Joe Desormeaux, the school system's assistant superintendent for facilities and construction, said the system doesn't have money set aside for signs, and it hasn't paid for any in the past.

"We haven't yet received an invoice, but I don't know who will pay for them," Desormeaux said. "We'll address it when the invoice gets here."

Desormeaux also said officials are discussing how to make future changes earlier in the year so the signs are ready when traditional school begins.

Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this story.

ray.martin@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4952

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