Wake schools panel rejects diversity changes

Staff writerFebruary 24, 2010 

— A key Wake County school board committee voted today against recommending changes to the student assignment policy that would eliminate all references for diversity while promoting neighborhood schools.

A motion by new school board member Chris Malone to recommend approval of the policy changes died when none of the other committee members seconded the motion. School board member Debra Goldman, a member of the new board majority, emerged again as a swing vote by not backing the motion. She said she supports changing the current student assignment policy but that more discussion needs to occur first.

“I believe very firmly that this wording is not 100 percent the way it is,” said Goldman, the chairwoman of the policy committee. “I just really feel that as an entire board there is more work to do.”

The committee unanimously agreed to recommend scheduling a work session of the full board to discuss what direction to take with the student assignment policy.

Today’s vote came after a heated committee discussion about whether diversity should be a factor in how students are assigned.

Wake has received national recognition for a policy that attempts to balance the percentages of low-income, low=performing, special education and limited English proficient students at individual schools.

Supporters of the diversity policy say it’s helped the school district academically. But critics say the policy just hides high-needs students at schools without actually helping them.

Opposition to the diversity policy helped fuel the election of Goldman and there other new board members last fall to form a new majority with veteran board member Ron Margiotta.

One of the first acts of the new board majority was to refer a major revision to the current assignment policy. The proposed changes, which were sent to the policy committee, eliminates all references to diversity and promoting neighborhood schools would be a priority.

Members of the board majority argued that it’s not the purpose of the assignment policy to deal with diversity. They pointed to the low graduation rates and academic performance of the district’s poor students.

“Do we solve the challenges through assignment or another means?” said new school board member John Tedesco. “I don’t personally believe that the best and most appropriate means to solve these challenges for these children is through assignment.”

Tedesco is chairman of the new committee that will develop a new student assignment model. He’s also chairman of a new task force that will look at how to improve the performance of low-income students.

But Kevin Hill, a member of the board minority, said problems would be worse without the use of diversity in student

“What would our achievement level be if we didn’t have the policy,” Hill asked. “What would be the cost if we didn’t have the policy for the schools that could become high-needs schools?

Keith Sutton, another member of the board minority, said it would “unconscionable” to not mention those high-needs students in the assignment policy.

Today’s discussion came less than a week after Schools Superintendent Del Burns publicly warned that ending the diversity policy would lead toward economically segregated schools.

Burns had picked up on a refrain used by critics of the new school board majority when he explained last week why he had announced his surprise resignation. Burns had said he didn’t feel comfortable carrying out the new board’s policies, including eliminating the use of socioeconomic diversity in school assignments.

The school board met behind closed doors on Tuesday discussing whether to remove Burns to remove ahead of his announced June 30 resignation date. Board members agreed to continue the discussion on March 2.

Burns, who had attended the first committee discussion on changes to the policy on Feb. 10, was not at today’s meeting

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