RALEIGH — Wake County's new school board majority Tuesday night ended mandatory year-round schools and took the first step toward gutting the district's diversity policy.
By a 5-4 vote, the ruling coalition approved a resolution that they added at the last minute to the meeting agenda. The measure says mandatory year-round assignments will end beginning with the 2010-11 school year. The resolution also ends the use of economic diversity in determining which students get priority for voluntary acceptance into year-round schools.
"This is what people are asking for," said Chris Malone, one of four Republican-backed newcomers who swept into office last fall and altered the board's balance of power. "This is why we were all elected the way we were."
The one-paragraph resolution on year-round schools was offered by Deborah Prickett.
It was short on details but could have major ramifications, including the reversal of board policy that called for year-round schools to have balanced student bodies based on families' economic backgrounds.
Prickett said the school system's capable staff could handle the details.
"I think it will be resolved in a timely manner and in a cost-efficient way," she said.
But board member Keith Sutton angrily called the sudden addition of the resolution "business as usual" by the new majority, recalling the slew of contentious measures added to the agenda of the new coalition's first meeting.
Currently, Wake gives priority to applicants from low-income neighborhoods to attend year-round schools as part of the effort to balance enrollment. This means applicants from some richer neighborhoods are unable to attend.
For this school year, 23 percent of the 3,887 applicants for year-round schools couldn't be placed.
In a previous meeting, the board sent to its policy committee a resolution that would remove diversity as a factor in all student assignments. But members of the board minority questioned whether Tuesday's year-round resolution was a shortcut toward achieving the broader goal.
Members of the board minority also questioned whether ending the mandatory year-round policy would force the district to shoulder the expense of building more schools.
"You're going to end up in some cases with significant overcrowding and in some cases significant underutilization," said school board member Anne McLaurin.
But new school board member John Tedesco said that ending mandatory year-round would have a minor impact. He said that only 143 people who wanted to leave a year-round school were not able to this school year.
Success on the third try
The resolution drew negative reaction from several speakers during a public comment section that was again dominated by critics of the new board.
"I've never been more ashamed to be a resident of Wake County," said Susan Evans, an Apex resident.
But Russell Capps, president of the Wake County Taxpayers Association, which had backed the new board members, praised their actions. "The people who voted for new board members voted for choice," Capps said. "I ask you to stand firmly for the things you believe in."
In addition to Malone, Tedesco and Prickett, Debra Goldman and board chairman Ron Margiotta voted for the resolution. Kevin Hill, McLaurin, Carolyn Morrison and Sutton voted no.
It is the third time since the new board members took office last month that they had tried to pass a resolution ending mandatory year-round schools.
Supporters of mandatory year-round schools have argued that they save on construction costs because they can hold more students than traditional-calendar schools. But critics have countered that enrollment has grown much less than expected and that the year-round calendar is a hardship for many families.
Now more than 44,000 students attend 51 year-round schools. The majority aren't there by choice; they're assigned to the schools.
The N.C. Supreme Court ruled in May that Wake didn't need parental permission to send students to year-round schools. But opposition to mandatory year-round became one of the campaign issues that helped get the new board members elected.
As part of the increased use of mandatory year-round, 22 schools were converted from a traditional calendar in 2007. To help reverse some of those conversions, the board agreed to fast-track a parental survey on calendar preference - traditional or year-round.
Parents of all 140,000 Wake County students will be targeted in an online survey conducted later this month. Based on the results, administrators will recommend Feb. 16 which schools can be converted back as quickly as the 2010-11 school year.
No vote on lawyer
Through a parliamentary error, board members were unable to vote on a proposal to hire Thomas Farr, an employment lawyer with longstanding ties to the state Republican party.
A motion to return the proposal for consideration would have required a two-thirds vote and failed when members McLaurin, Hill and Morrison voted against it. Margiotta said he'll call a special meeting to vote on Farr's hiring at $250 an hour to review the system's contracts and arrangements with law firms, including Raleigh-based Tharrington Smith.
During a public comment period, four people spoke against hiring Farr, saying that it was a waste of taxpayer money during a tight budget time for Wake schools.
Raleigh resident Duncan Munn argued that the board would set a bad precedent by selecting a lawyer without more input from all members and citizens.
"There's no substitute for an open public process," Munn said.
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