Wake board's task is arduous

Plan for schools is unformed

Staff WritersMarch 4, 2010 

— To pass their resolution implementing community-based schools, members of the Wake County school board majority had to endure fellow members' complaints about their methods and hours of criticism from members of the public.

But the hardest part almost certainly lies ahead - figuring out the details and costs of keeping students close to home, satisfying parents and boosting poor students' academic achievement.

The board voted 5-4 on Tuesday to give initial approval to scrapping Wake's diversity policy, an important component of student assignments for decades. A final vote is expected March 23.

The resolution calls for Wake to be divided into community zones, each with magnet, year-round and traditional calendar schools but doesn't detail how many will be created and is scant on other details. Members of the board majority say the nine to 15 months set aside to hone their ideas will be enough time to resolve questions.

"I don't think it will be as challenging as people think," said board member John Tedesco, who heads the committee that would develop the plan. "There will be some challenging components."

Critics say the proposal contains inherent contradictions that can't be resolved without redesigning the 140,000-student system virtually from top to bottom. Among the areas of uncertainty:

No one knows whether the changes will cost more, or where the money would come from if they do.

The plan calls for maintaining some form of the popular magnet school program but excludes the use of economic diversity as a factor in student admission. It remains uncertain how admissions would be determined.

The plan would almost certainly increase poverty at some schools but offers no details on improving their performance.

The proposal calls for community-based assignment zones but doesn't say how their boundaries would be drawn.

During the contentious school board meeting where the resolution was adopted, Superintendent Del Burns said that staff members haven't started considering how the elements in the plan will work or how much they will cost.

"I think the public really deserves to see a cost analysis, to give the community some assurance if this is a folly, or is this feasible," said Yevonne Brannon, a former Wake county commissioner and chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a community group that backs the diversity policy.

"I'm kind of tired of talking about a vision; I want a price tag to go with that vision."

Tedesco, who co-wrote the resolution, said the board majority would have been accused of being reckless if it had presented a completed plan with dollar figures. He said involving the community in developing the plan and coming up with cost figures is more responsible.

'Stability and balance'

"Nobody is saying we have the ultimate plan today," Tedesco said. "We know we're going to work out a plan that has stability and balance."

Kristen Stocking, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parents' group that backed the board majority, said she's not worried.

"The opposition keeps asking for details, but we have details showing that the system they're fighting for isn't working," Stocking said. Wake's 54.2 percent graduation rate for low-income students is "appalling," she said.

In a community-based assignment program, some schools could see sharp increases in the number of poor and minority students. And it's likely to cost more to educate them, said Ann Denlinger, president of the Wake Education Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy group.

"It requires additional financial resources, a consistent flow of additional dollars," Denlinger said. "We have not found any place that has done that successfully."

Tedesco said a community-based system should allow Wake to better target resources for low-income students.

Parents hard to please

Just as some parents have been angry about the present system, Brannon said, no solution is likely to suit everyone. The decision to set up new attendance zones alone will require a long, probably contentious process, Brannon said.

"If they think they've seen public hearings last for a long time, wait until they have hearings on these attendance zones," she said.

Families will have a very personal stake in the exact streets that mark the boundaries of zones. Inevitably, some won't be happy.

"If you want to go to school A and we put you in school B, aren't we back to where we started?" Brannon said.

Tedesco said that the new zones should be able to keep many school assignments.

"I can't see how this will affect much more than what we're doing now," Tedesco said. "Some people are trying to sensationalize the details."

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

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