RALEIGH — Taking advantage of the political vacuum caused by the demise of a new student assignment plan, Democratic members of the Wake County school board on Tuesday proposed slowing down the process to get broader public input and to determine the costs of going to neighborhood schools.
The proposal presented by former board chairman Kevin Hill - which got a nod from swing voter Debra Goldman - could delay adoption of a new plan past the 2011 school board elections.
Recognizing the fracture of his once-solid, Republican majority, school board chairman Ron Margiotta said Tuesday that he will run for re-election next year to fight for neighborhood schools in the state's largest school district. He had said he expected to retire next year.
"I've got a cause to fight for," said Margiotta, 72. "I said I'd go if the job was done."
Margiotta, who has served on the board since 2003, had been joined by four board members, elected last fall, who backed him in eliminating diversity as a factor in assigning students to schools. But progress on the new assignment model has hit a roadblock.
The man of the hour Tuesday was Hill, who helped write the resolution that Goldman, breaking from her Republican colleagues in the majority, backed Oct. 5. That document halted work on a plan to divide the county into 16 community assignment zones.
Opponents of the board members who discarded the district's diversity policy have complained about the lack of financial data for their community schools model and the feeling that opponents were being shut out of the process.
"We've got to find a way to reach a consensus, and no one has really brought it to the table," Hill, a Democrat, said. "This process here is something that should be very simple, but will help us frame some very complex questions."
How to rebuild the plan
In his proposal, Hill said board members shouldn't even begin the process yet of building a new student assignment plan. He said they first need to frame a vision by interviewing parents, residents, elected officials, principals and teachers.
After hearing from the public, he said, the board needs to address the fiscal implications of the new assignment model, including the cost of transportation and the cost of paying teachers to work in high-poverty schools. The board also needs to define what's meant by proximity, community schools, equity and stability, he said. The majority who overturned the diversity policy, had previously said that proximity, community schools and stability were their goals for a new assignment plan.
"We have to determine the cost," Hill said. "My overwhelming concern is that we as a board will build a plan that we can't fully implement."
The other side
Board members who supported the community zone plan voiced complaints.
"You can't ask a builder how much a building will cost unless you know what all the bells and whistles will be," Republican board member Chris Malone said.
Board member John Tedesco, who had been in charge of drawing up the community zone plan as head of the student assignment committee, said the costs can't be determined until the specifics of a new plan are drawn up.
Both Malone and Tedesco, a Republican, charged that Hill's proposal was designed to delay adoption until after next year's school board elections. Five of the nine board seats are on the ballot in 2011, including the four Democrats and Margiotta's. Critics of the community zone plan would have to win all five seats to regain control.
"It's really convenient that it won't be ready before the elections," Tedesco said.
But Democratic board member Keith Sutton said the intent of Hill's approach was not to slow down the process, but to improve it.
"It's a deliberate approach," he said. "We are going to have some inclusion and some consensus building."
In a reaction that could determine the future of Hill's proposal, swing voter Goldman seemed receptive. Goldman says she still supports community schools but didn't like Tedesco's committee's zone model.
"I think this board working together would be fantastic," Goldman said. "I am looking forward to working for the academic benefit of the children of Wake County."
Board members agreed to review Hill's proposal Nov.9.
"I think the issues can be resolved if we listen to comments and the community continues to put pressure on us to act as a group," Sutton said.
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