School credentials team to scrutinize Wake

NAACP complaint about diversity sets school board on edge

STAFF WRITERSAugust 18, 2010 

  • The accrediting agency that will be coming to Wake County in September or October wants more information on virtually every high-profile action the school board has taken since a new majority took over Dec. 1. They are asking for full information on:

    Any policies adopted since Dec. 1

    The transition plan to a community-based assignment system

    How the community-based plan was developed out of the previous diversity-based plan

    How people were picked to create the community-based plan, including their qualifications

    "Any and all student performance data, transition plan impact studies, financial impact studies and specific case studies" that support the conclusion that the new assignment plan will improve student achievement.

    Any policy proposed or put into effect that changed the power and authority of the superintendent, board members and administrators.

    The seat voucher system set up to seat people at school board meetings

    A copy of the parent satisfaction survey, which showed that a large majority of parents are satisfied with their children's schools.

    Contracts between the school board and the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank that the school board has engaged to provide some of its legally required training.

    Contracts between the board and Thomas Farr, a Raleigh lawyer hired to conduct a review of the board's legal arrangements.

    Any financial analysis used by the board in lifting the mandatory nature of year-round school attendance for some students.

    Any information, studies or contracts used to abandon a Forestville Road site for a new high school and instead planning to build it in Rolesville.

    Source: Letter to Wake Schools from SACS

  • The local accrediting agency for AdvancED is the the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which consists of 13,000 accredited colleges and universities, elementary, middle, and secondary schools. Membership in SACS makes it easier for students to transfer credits between schools. It provides students greater access to federal loans, scholarships, post secondary education, and military programs that require accreditation.

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CORRECTION

A caption with a photo that accompanied Wednesday's story on Wake schools' pending accreditation incorrectly described where AdvancED CEO Mark Elgart was speaking and what he said. The photograph was taken in Decatur, Ga., in 2008, and Elgart was commenting on a review of the Clayton County, Ga. school system.

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A powerful accreditation group is threatening to strip its credentials from Wake County's high schools unless the school board majority can justify all the major decisions they've made since December.

The sweeping review that will be conducted in early fall by Advancing Excellence in Education Worldwide, or AdvancED was triggered by a March complaint filed by the state NAACP and is one of less than a handful conducted each year by the accreditation group based in suburban Atlanta.

"It is rare, and it is serious," Mark Elgart, CEO of AdvancEd, said of the pending review of North Carolina's largest school district.

Supporters of the board majority were angered by the decision.

"I question their authority," said school board Chairman Ron Margiotta. "This seems to be political."

The AdvancED review team, scheduled to spend three days in Raleigh in September or October, is charged with determining whether the school board is making decisions based on the best interests of students and the community and whetherthe board is following its own policies, Elgart said.. If the answers don't satisfy the team, Wake's 24 high schools could lose the accreditation that makes it easier for students to get scholarships, loans and college acceptances.

The decision to scrutinize Wake school board actions follows months of protests, rallies and arrests since a new majority took control of the board in December and immediately began dismantling the district's longstanding economic diversity policy in favor of community schools. The Rev. William Barber, head of the state civil rights organization, has been at the forefront of those protests and rallies and has twice been arrested during school board meetings.

AdvancED accredits more than 27,000 schools, but only rarely executes the kind of review that Wake is getting. In Georgia, reviews of three districts resulted in one losing its accreditation - the first such action in nearly 40 years - and two others facing sanctions. In two of those Georgia districts, the state's governor removed school board members in the aftermath of the accreditation group's review. No provision exists in North Carolina law that would allow anything similar to happen here.

AdvancED has given Wake until the end of the month to provide documentation for more than a dozen decisions the school board has made. In addition to the student assignment changes, other matters that will be reviewed include requiring tickets for seats at board meetings, building a high school in Rolesville instead of on already purchased land in northeast Raleigh, contracts between the board and lawyer Thomas Farr and the cost of ending the mandatory year-round schools policy.

Roiled by the news

The news that AdvancED would put the Wake board's decision-making under a microscope brought angry charges from supporters of the majority that the group was venturing far from educational topics and presenting unnecessary obstacles.

Those who have fought Wake's changes in direction say the board is substituting untested assignment methods based on neighborhood schools for the system's established plan to reinforce diversity. Barber said the board is failing to comply with its own regulations.

"We believe that there were some serious violations of the board's own policies," said Barber, who has also threatened a lawsuit against the Wake school board. "We wanted them to come in with a strong review." Others in Wake also contacted AdvancED, but the accreditation group acted only after the NAACP's formal complaint.

Tedesco asked how relevant it is for an accreditation agency to look into legal contracts, school construction decisions and other board policy decisions.

"I can't speak as to their motives, but I can comment that it's inappropriate for them to dive into some of the matters they're wanting to look into," Tedesco said.

Another decision to be reviewed is the board majority's vote to name the Civitas Institute, a Raleigh-based conservative organization, as one of the groups that can provide training to board members. Francis DeLuca, president of the Civitas Institute, said the review is going too far beyond educational issues that should be determined by elected board members.

"It's a scary thing that the board is doing what they were elected to do and now we've got this outside, unelected board threatening them," DeLuca said.

But Kevin Hill, former board chairman and a member of the panel's minority, said he hopes to get helpful guidance from the review.

"What I'm hoping is that when the review is finished that we have some very straightforward words of advice," Hill said. "Either we are doing fine, or we need to look at this direction or that direction because I don't think we can afford to lose accreditation."

School officials urged AdvancED in April to drop the review, calling it "completely unwarranted."

"The persons who have made these unfounded complaints are seeking to use your organization in an attempt to defeat the will of the voters of Wake County as reflected in the last election," the school district said in its response.

But the school district's response didn't satisfy AdvancED, which now wants detailed information on the qualifications of the people developing the new student assignment plan and any financial and academic studies used to justify abandoning the diversity policy. Some of the issues raised are similar to those brought up by Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a community group that supports the old diversity policy.

"They're asking the questions that the community wants to know, too," said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Great Schools in Wake. "They took out policies that have long been effective."

Brannon said it's sad that the school board majority's actions have put the accreditation for high schools in danger. She said board members need to rescind their decisions before it's too late.

"It's time for the school board majority to stop," Brannon said. "They're in over their heads and don't know what they're doing."

But Tedesco questioned why AdvancED is focusing on Wake's assignment decisions when the district is moving to a system used by nearly all school systems in the country.

Tedesco said Wake should comply with the review team's requests. But if the review gets too onerous and starts distracting them from their duties, Tedesco said he'd recommend stopping cooperation.

Still the largest system

In June, school board members discussed whether to continue their membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is the regional organization for AdvancED. The board kept the membership after interim Superintendent Donna Hargens lobbied them to stay.

Tedesco said he thinks Wake could pull out of SACS without negatively influencing students' college prospects.

"We're still the 18th largest school system," Tedesco said. "I don't think colleges make decisions based on a school's accreditation."

But Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill, disagreed. Many North Carolina universities recommend that applicants come from accredited high schools, he said. Those who don't force admission officers to work harder to determine whether they're academically qualified.

"We see very few candidates, other than home-schooled candidates, who don't come from accredited schools," he said.

Staff writers Eric Ferreri and Anne Blythe contributed to this story.

keunghui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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