RALEIGH — Facing the possible loss of accreditation of Wake County high schools next week, school board members grudgingly agreed Thursday to turn over information for a sweeping review of the district's policies.
The board met behind closed doors to discuss an Oct. 1 deadline to turn over records about the elimination of Wake's diversity-based student assignment policy and other major decisions this year.
School officials still object to the wide scope of the investigation - everything from how the board hired lawyers to the way the public gets tickets for meetings. But they said they will cooperate with the special review by the Georgia-based accrediting agency Advancing Excellence in Education Worldwide, or AdvancED.
"While reserving its objection to the scope of your inquiry, the Board continues to hope for a collegial process and will provide the records that you have requested," school board attorney Ann Majestic wrote Thursday in a letter to AdvancED.
The school board also proposed that an AdvancED special review team come to Raleigh the week of Nov. 29. AdvancED had wanted to hold the review either this month or in October.
Mark Elgart, president of AdvancED, said Thursday that the Wake system has agreed to provide the records that the agency originally requested. He said a letter from Majestic Sept. 8 resisting turning over material and asking for more explanation of AdvancED's requests was an unusual response.
"Our standards for schools and districts include a standard on governance," he said. "The high schools in Wake County are governed by one board. A normal response from a school system would be to provide the requested information and to ready themselves for the visit."
Hanging in the balance is the accreditation of Wake's 24 high schools. Losing accreditation would make it harder for students to get scholarships, loans and college acceptances.
"It's pretty serious, isn't it?" said Keith Sutton, a member of the minority faction on the school board. "I think we need to stop playing with these folks and comply, give them what they ask for."
Board reaction 'defiant'
The developments Thursday came after a pair of sharply written letters by attorneys for the school system andAdvancED about the accreditation review. Most of the arguments revolve around whether it's appropriate for AdvancED to conduct a districtwide review of Wake's policies when it only accredits the district's high schools.
AdvancED is making a rare special review in response to a March complaint from the state NAACP over the elimination of the diversity policy and other matters.
Elgart said the proposed scope of AdvancED's review depended in part on the NAACP's complaint, but also drew on other situations that other sources brought to the attention of AdvancED.
"What we certainly became aware of is that the community of Wake County right now is divided," he said. In a letter Sept. 17 to Majestic, Kenneth Bergman, the general counsel for AdvancED, wrote that the agency is concerned about the "openly defiant nature" of Wake's reaction to its special review. Bergman warned that unless Wake provided the information AdvancED wanted by Oct.1, the agency would declare the district in violation of the organization's policies.
School board member Carolyn Morrison called the letter from AdvancED "frightening" and disagreed with the board's decision to discuss the matter in closed session Thursday.
"I've been in this system since 1964," said Morrison, also a member of the board's minority faction. "We've worked very hard to get where we are. It's breaking my heart."
School officials argued in a blunt Sept. 8 letter to AdvancED that the international accrediting organization has no right to question the way Wake assigns students to schools.
Reasons for resisting
"The Board's overriding concern is that your request seems to have little, if anything, to do with the accreditation status of individual high schools in Wake County," Majestic wrote. "Instead, they strongly suggest that AdvancED wishes to second guess the merits of the Board's decision to transition to a community-based school assignment plan."
AdvancED's responsibility, Elgart said, is to look at all of the board's actions and decisions and weigh their impact on the quality of education in Wake County. The agency isn't questioning the board's authority, but wants to look at the impact of the sudden pace of change since the new majority took office in December.
There's no government mandate for schools to be accredited, and Wake could decide to affiliate with a different agency in another part of the nation. However, accreditation is typically a one- to two-year process, Elgart said.
AdvancED rarely executes the kind of review envisioned for Wake, North Carolina's largest school district. 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.
Support for fighting
Some supporters of the school board majority are urging it to defy AdvancED. Joe Ciulla, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance parent group, said AdvancED is acting like a bully and should be sued if it removes accreditation.
"AdvancED's request is absurd and beyond the bounds of what they should be doing," said Ciulla, who as a parent of a high school senior would likely be affected by the loss of accreditation. "They're abusing the power of accreditation."
Though accreditation isn't a requirement for college admission, many North Carolina universities recommend that applicants come from accredited schools, said Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill. He said accreditation is an easy way for a university to know that a high school meets a series of standards.
But there is wiggle room for applicants who didn't attend accredited schools.
"We're not closing the door to anyone automatically," Farmer said. He added, however: "We see very few candidates, other than home-schooled candidates, who don't come from accredited schools."
Staff writer Eric Ferreri contributed to this report.
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