Accreditation agency will visit Wake schools next month

AdvancED's reply to Wake board means schools might lose accreditation.

STAFF WRITERSJanuary 14, 2011 

— The head of a national accrediting agency told Wake County school leaders today they’re coming to review the school system next month with or without the district’s cooperation.

In today’s letter, Mark Elgart, president of Georgia-based AdvancED, officially declined the school system’s conditions for participating in the special review of the school district. Elgart said a review team will come Feb. 17-18 to Raleigh to review allegations of poor governance lodged by the state NAACP against the school board.

The only way to stop the review, which will examine decisions such as the elimination of the use of diversity in student assignment, is for the school board to withdraw membership from AdvancED. But pulling out would cost Wake’s 24 high schools their accreditation, potentially making it harder for high school students to gain scholarship and get into some colleges and universities.

“Providing that the Wake County Board of Education decides to maintain its accreditation we will conduct the visit on February 17-18, 2011 with or without the cooperation of individual board members and professional staff,” Elgart said in today’s letter. “However it is our hope that the Review Team will have the full cooperation of the leadership of the school system so that a fair and objective visit can be conducted.”

AdvancED, is investigating Wake's schools in response to an NAACP complaint that alleged the school board was not following its own policies when it took steps to discard the county's practice of balancing schools based on students' socioeconomic backgrounds.

But some school board members have complained that AdvancED's review unfairly includes matters that shouldn't affect accreditation.

This week the board even threatened to drop its affiliation with AdvancED.

But on Thursday, the board sent AdvancED a letter asking it to agree to some terms. For Wake to cooperate with the investigation, the board's letter said, the agency would have to:

Agree in advance of the interviews what topics will be covered and what process followed.

Allow school board members and school staffers to have lawyers representing them during the interviews.

Agree in advance on how to handle specific inquiries made during the interviews that relate to litigation and/or are beyond the agreed upon topics.

Advise Wake in advance of the interviews as to what findings relating to the operation of the school board would lead to some change in accreditation status.

"Anything less than a positive response to this letter will force the Board to also consider its continuing relationship with AdvancED," said the letter, which was written by school board attorneys Ann Majestic and Jonathan Blumberg.

In today’s letter, Elgart said they couldn’t accept those conditions because it would force them to deviate from the polices they use for reviewing other institutions. He accused school leaders of being confrontational.

Elgart said in today’s letter that they’re focusing on the school board’s governance and leadership.

“The focus of the inquiry is to not dictate policy to the Board of Education or to exert control over the governing powers and authorities,” Elgart writes. “However, it is designed to help the Board of Education improve their effectiveness so as to benefit the schools for which it governs.”

AdvancED has asked for information on a wide range of issues such as student assignment, the hiring of attorney Thomas Farr, the naming of the conservative Civitas Institute as a trainer for school board members and the decision not to build a high school on Forestville Road.

Kieran Shanahan, a lawyer who helped write the school district's letter to AdvancED, said Thursday the school board has gone out of its way to cooperate with AdvancED.

"I'd like to think that as reasonable people we would do reasonable things that are in the best interests of the children," Shanahan said. "The board has gone the extra mile to get meaningful collaboration."

The dispute with AdvancED has brought questions from GOP board members about whether accreditation is necessary. Although some colleges and scholarships require it, other universities say it's not as important as other aspects of a high school student's application.

Arriving at a Chamber of Commerce event tonight, newly chosen Wake County schools superintendent Anthony Tata said he hoped that everyone involved kept students' best interests in mind when dealing with the ongoing accreditation fight.

"I have not been part of this discussion," Tata said upon arriving, noting that his employment with Wake doesn't begin until Jan. 31. "I just pray that everyone is keeping the hopes and dreams of the juniors and seniors at heart."

School board member Kevin Hill said he'll ask the board to decide at a work session Tuesday whether to cooperate with AdvancED or to drop out of the agency.

Elgart, AdvancED's chief executive, said he'd advise Wake to stay on through at least the end of the school year so as not to cause students to graduate from unaccredited high schools. He warned that Wake might not find it so easy to get accreditation from another group.

"The school system can't play a shell game here," Elgart said Thursday. or 919-829-4534

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