Wake schools face change, challenge

Politics in play as emotions swirl

Staff WritersFebruary 21, 2010 

  • Wake Education Partnership is a nonprofit that describes its mission as creating "world-class" schools in Wake County.

    Operating separately from the county schools system, it seeks involvement from the Wake community and from business interests. Its recent report, "Assigning Students to Their Closest School," examined potential results under a plan which simply sent each student to his or her closest school. The report found that 19 Wake schools would be at 150 percent capacity or more and roughly two dozen more would be less than half full. In addition, at least 15 schools would have at least two out of three students eligible for free and reduced price lunches and 27 schools would have less than 10percent low-income students.

    The new majority on the Wake County School Board has heavily criticized the study for using scare tactics and illustrating an approach they say is not under consideration. The nonprofit says it will consider other scenarios, including assignment zones, in future reviews. To read the report, go to: tinyurl.com/yhx4vr5

— A communitywide debate over how Wake County will assign its 140,000 students to schools got louder last week.

By week's end, it appeared that schools Superintendent Del Burns, who said he would leave in June, could be ousted in a few days. The school board would be left with the task of finding a replacement while dealing with a contentious public debate, an increasingly organized opposition, and operational problems, including a projected gap of at least $20million in a $1 billion-plus budget.

"To me, the foremost issue right now is the budget," said board member and former chairman Kevin Hill, noting that school administration staff usually present a draft budget to the Wake board at the beginning of March.

"We have a looming deficit and Superintendent Burns has been instrumental in trying to deal with that."

Some in the community applauded Burns' departure, and the school board majority said it would push forward with plans to make major changes in the state's largest school system, including ending a policy of busing students for economic diversity.

The dynamics of the board changed when four members, elected last fall from suburban districts, joined like-minded incumbent Ron Margiotta to form a majority and promised voters they would set up a community-based student assignment system. That proposal was heard by many as meaning less busing for students and more close-to-home school assignments.

But in making changes several obstacles await, including:

The logistical complexity of revamping such a large operation, without the expertise of Burns and Assistant Superintendent Chuck Dulaney, who is retiring.

"If the superintendent is not there, we are going to have some real issues," Hill said.

Opposition to proposed changes from a new alliance of parent and community groups. "I think the community is very distraught, very upset right now. I think we should spend the next four months, slow down, spend some time thinking about what kind of policy changes we would want to make," said Yevonne Brannon, a former county commissioner who helped organize the Great Schools in Wake Coalition to support the diversity policy.

The board majority also vowed to end involuntary assignment to year-round schools. But a board-commissioned survey showed high levels of Wake parent satisfaction with their child's school, even among parents with children on the year-round calendar, raising questions about how much appetite the community has for change.

Resistance to ending the diversity policy from a group of Raleigh clergy. Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, a traditional bastion of liberalism, brought pastors together to address the issues this month. "What we're facing is racial discrimination," the Rev. Diane Petty said.

And, the threat of a lawsuit by the state NAACP.

Battle over Burns

Burns, 56, abruptly announced last week that he would resign as of June 30 as a matter of conscience. Burns followed his resignation announcement with a sharp critique of his bosses' plans to throw out the county's diversity-based assignment policy. That prompted the board majority on Friday to set a closed session for Tuesday to discuss whether to oust Burns immediately.

"It was always very unrealistic to expect that the author and administrator of many of the policies that were voted down by the electorate would be the right person to oversee rolling those policies back," said Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a group that advocates low taxes and limited government.

Stirring the pot

The school board controversy has created an unusually high level of interest in local politics, said political scientist Andy Taylor of N.C. State University. It comes complete with differences over policies rather than the personality conflicts that often dominate county or city races, he said.

"Certainly there are significant ideological differences between the new board members and the old," Taylor said. "To the extent you can sort of overlay those over national politics, the new school board members are on the right side of center and the old school board members are on the left side of center."

As in national races, the dynamic of the Wake dispute was changing daily last week. Burns lit a firestorm Thursday by saying the new board's plans to end diversity-based assignments in one of the nation's largest school systems could resegregate Wake, creating a gulf between poor, mostly minority schools and higher-income, mostly white schools.

Board member John Tedesco, one of the newly elected Republican-backed majority, said it's time for a new means of dealing with racial and economic inequities.

"What our families want, what the new board is going to try our best to build, is a model that ensures stability for our communities while allowing us to focus on education," said Tedesco. He is proposing as many as 20school assignment zones, each with comparable school offerings.

"I think we are right on track," Tedesco said. "I think maybe we hit a couple of bumps in the process early on that made people concerned about things."

Political newcomers, veteran power brokers, community groups, members of the clergy, civil rights advocates and business leaders have all weighed in on proposed changes that would remove or devalue diversity in each school as a goal of North Carolina's biggest school district. Comments on The News & Observer's Web site about Burns' resignation had to be shut down because the posts grew so inflammatory.

Partnership's say

Meanwhile, a prominent education nonprofit, the Wake Education Partnership, which has worked to support the schools since 1983, faced charges that the group is actively working to waylay the agenda ofthe new school board.

"Any clear understanding of what the future holds for Wake County's public schools was tossed aside Tuesday night when Superintendent Del Burns stunned the new school board by announcing his resignation," the Wake Education Partnership said in an electronic newsletter the day after Burns' announcement.

Even before Burns' announcement, the Partnership, a primarily business-backed nonprofit that has supported the diversity policy, released a report predicting that assigning all Wake students to their closest schools would have disastrous results. The report said fallout could include massive overcrowding at some schools, empty classrooms in others and high concentrations of low-income students at some locations.

School board Vice Chairwoman Debra Goldman called the report "preposterous and alarmist." She said board members have never said they would assign students solely to their closest schools.

"My question is why? Were they just trying to stir things up?" Goldman said. "My fear is that this is the kind of thing that stirs the public up for the wrong reasons."

Representatives of the Partnership, which is structured as nonpartisan but worked closely with the former school board majority, said the report was one of several that will present different scenarios of change. The Partnership draws considerable support from the business community; its sizable board of trustees includes Orage Quarles III, publisher of The News & Observer. School board chairman Margiotta declined a slot on the board, and Goldman will fill it instead.

Tim Simmons, communications director for the group, said the report noted that the approach it analyzed was not under consideration by the board. But, he said, it spoke to questions the public might have about community-based schools, he said

"I know that the general public thinks that school choice means they get to choose the schools close to home," Simmons said. "The primary reason for doing this is to make it clear that that is not possible." Simmons covered education at The N&O for several years.

But board member Deborah Prickett said the Wake Education Partnership seems to oppose everything the new majority wants to accomplish.

"I feel like a salmon swimming upstream against them," she said.

Supporters of the board majority are eagerly awaiting the promised changes - no more overlong bus rides to support diversity, a chance for students and parents to bond with a nearby school and fewer arbitrary reassignments.

"Leave my children in their community," said GayleSabol, an Apex parent who addressed board members at a recent public hearing on year-round schools in Holly Springs. "Year-round or not, children need to be in their community."

Major changes in student assignments, including elimination of the diversity policy, will likely occur no sooner than a year from this fall, giving members and staff more opportunity to work through the complexities of time and space involved, members of the majority say.

Staff reporter Sarah Nagem contributed to this report.

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

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