RALEIGH — The fate of every Wake County elementary and middle school for the 2010-2011 school year will be decided by what tens of thousands of parents do over the next two weeks.
Starting today, parents of all 140,000 Wake County students can take an online survey whose results will be used by school leaders to decide whether individual schools will operate on a year-round or traditional calendar this fall. The changes could mean that students will be reassigned as early as this fall as some elementary and middle schools are converted to different calendars.
The voluntary survey is part of the effort by the new majority coalition on the Wake County school board to carry out its campaign pledge to roll back mandatory year-round schools. The effect of the changes could be sweeping, adding uncertainty to planning for the next school year.
"No one ever felt it would be an easy fix," said school board chairman Ron Margiotta. "But this will tell us what parents want. It's not going to be an easy survey, but at least we're asking parents."
But some are saying that the new board majority is moving too fast. Last week, the board passed a resolution ending mandatory year-round school assignments. The board also accelerated the timing of the parental survey so that calendar changes could be made for the 2010-11 school year.
"It appears to me that the board is rushing into changes without knowing what the implications will be," said Carey Florentino, a North Raleigh parent.
The scope of the coming changes could be extensive if the majority of parents at many schools say they want to change calendars. Wake presumably would allow students who want to keep their current calendars to attend other schools. The district may also have to reassign if a school converts to the traditional calendar but can't seat all its students because it has less classroom capacity.
While the changes will mean some students will move, North Raleigh parent Lisa Boneham stressed that the survey will allow parents to show the board and school district staff which calendar they really want.
"There is going to be some pain before it all shakes out," said Boneham, who has been leading efforts to get Leesville Road elementary and middle schools converted back to a traditional calendar.
Members of the board's new majority say they want to keep year-round schools, but they want to ensure that parents have the right to leave if they prefer that their children attend traditional-calendar schools. They also hope that eliminating diversity as a priority for voluntary application to year-round schools will bring more students into the program.
But critics say that eliminating the diversity priority may mean that year-round schools will become more affluent at the expense of traditional-calendar schools. Currently, more than 44,000 Wake students attend 51 year-round schools.
Even if few school calendar changes are made, Wake will have to deal with the unknown of how many students will opt out of year-round schools or apply to get into them. A key element of the resolution adopted last week says that every effort will be made to accommodate families into the calendar of their choice near where they live.
More parents are expected to opt out of year-round schools. Critics of mandatory year-round schools complained that Wake often made the traditional-calendar options so far from where families lived that it discouraged people from applying.
"Many people truly did not have a legitimate option," Margiotta said. "We're not saying that you can't be assigned to a year-round, but we are saying you can have legitimate traditional options."
But some members of the board minority question whether there will be enough classroom seats, particularly in traditional-calendar schools, to handle increased demand from ending mandatory year-round.
At last week's school board meeting, Superintendent Del Burns said administrators need time to figure out how to implement the changes called for in the resolution.
John Tedesco, one of four new school board members elected last fall, expressed confidence that administrators will come up with a plan. He believes there are enough empty seats around the district to accommodate the demand.
"I'm not concerned about people telling us they want something," Tedesco said. "That's our job - to meet the demand."
Daniel Bland, a Fuquay-Varina parent, said the new board members are unrealistic in their expectations.
"If you're going to offer choice to everybody, you have to be ready to do it," Bland said. "If 80 percent of families say they want traditional, I don't know how they can do it."
Kathleen Brennan, a Cary parent, said that while some parents won't get what they want, at least they're being heard now. Brennan is a co-founder of Wake CARES, a parent group that sued Wake over mandatory year-round schools.
After the N.C. Supreme Court ruled last year that Wake didn't need parental permission to send students to year-round schools, Wake CARES worked with other groups, such as the Wake County Republican Party, to elect new school board members.
"Parents are speaking out that they're dissatisfied, and the school board has given them a voice," Brennan said.
In the middle of the fighting are parents like SusanMcGregor of Apex, who says she doesn't know where her child will go to kindergarten in the fall.
"Will there be dramatic change in the upcoming year, or will there be gradual change over the next three years?" McGregor said. "It seems a lot has been happening over the past few weeks."
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