Schools panel is grumpy, grappling

Sinking of zone-based student assignment plan leaves majority with 'no clear direction'; Tedesco cancels two of five meetings.

Staff WriterOctober 13, 2010 

— A Wake County school board committee charged with implementing neighborhood schools has been left rudderless with board members complaining Tuesday that they're back at square one now that their zone-based student assignment plan has been killed.

Debra Goldman, the board vice chairwoman, split from the Republican majority last week to back the Democratic minority in a resolution calling for the end of months of work on an assignment plan that would have divided Wake into 16 community school zones. A week later, the student assignment committee met Tuesday with GOP members saying the situation is a "mess."

"There's no clear direction for us to follow right now," said Republican board member John Tedesco, chairman of the student assignment committee, who canceled two of the five remaining meetings scheduled for this year.

Goldman has insisted that she still supports community-based schools and doesn't want to go back to Wake's old diversity-based student assignment policy. But she has offered few details on how the board should next proceed to develop the new assignment model.

Goldman, who was called "prom queen" and "Benedict Goldman" by Tedesco last week, was not at the committee meeting. She instead attended a forum later in the day at Cary Town Hall. Tedesco has apologized for his remarks.

Republican board member Chris Malone congratulated Democratic board member Keith Sutton for "catching them off guard" by enlisting Goldman's support in the resolution ending the zone-based plan. Malone said the vote has put Wake back to where things were after last fall's election, when he and Goldman were among the four new board members who promised to end the diversity policy in favor of neighborhood schools.

"We're back to square one and we have to realize that," said Malone, a member of the student assignment committee.

In contrast, Sutton said the school board is now moving in a new direction.

"We can be more thorough and deliberate now," said Democratic board member Anne McLaurin.

Before last week, the committee had been working on a draft plan for potential implementation in the 2011-12 school year. The focus of the plan's 16 community zones was stability, family choice and proximity of the school to a family's home.

Goldman said she split with her fellow Republicans because the zone plan didn't provide a guaranteed school assignment for every address and because the borders of the zones split communities. Goldman had also complained about being shut out of the process for developing the plan.

"My beef with this is that it wasn't amended, it was ended," Malone said. "It wasn't a scalpel used, it was a hammer."

Changes proposed

The resolution passed last week leaves in place the new student assignment policy that eliminates diversity as a factor. But the resolution also maintains the assignments made under the old diversity policy for the 2011-12 school year that had been adopted by the previous board. The resolution calls for making only "adjustments to the existing plan" for next school year.

Malone charged that the resolution effectively blocks the board from implementing a community schools plan before next fall's school board elections. Democrats would need to win all five seats on next fall's ballot to regain a majority on the school board.

McLaurin said the election had nothing to do with the vote to stop the plan. She's up for re-election next year.

"The problem is we were heading right off the cliff," she said.

In the vacuum, Republican board member Deborah Prickett proposed Tuesday a list of changes she said should now be considered for her district if they're not going to a zone plan. Her district covers northwest Raleigh, Morrisville and part of western Cary.

Prickett's proposals include:

Converting Hilburn Elementary School to a sixth-grade center next year to free up room at Leesville Road Middle School.

Making York Elementary School a magnet next year.

Offering more advanced courses at Green Hope and Leesville Road high schools to compete with magnet schools.

Offering traditional-calendar choices for the Carpenter Village area.

"The community zones would have addressed these issues," Prickett said. "Now that we don't have them, we still need to address them."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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