Tata takes student assignments by the horns

Superintendent will meld approaches, sees 2012-13 plan by late spring.

Staff WritersFebruary 16, 2011 

  • Wake County school board members on Tuesday took the first steps toward what their lawyer pledged would be a fair, data-based process to redraw school board district lines by June.

    Raleigh lawyer Kieran Shanahan was engaged by the board Feb. 1 to coordinate the redistricting process. Shanahan and others at his firm will draw up computer-driven new lines for Wake's nine school-board districts based on information from the 2010 census, which he said will be available during the next three weeks.

    Shanahan presented a list of guidelines on which to base the new zone lines, which the board accepted with minor changes.

    According to the guidelines, the new districts should comply with the federal "one-man, one-vote" mandate, have relatively equal populations and be relatively compact. In addition, the lines should not split precincts or be packed with members of minority groups or take into account political parties.

    Members debated whether to include as a guideline a prohibition against putting two incumbent members in the same district. They settled for avoiding such districts "when practical."

    Shanahan said the plan should be ready for approval by June 24.

    The school board also passed a resolution saying it "commits to develop a redistricting plan through an open, transparent, and inclusive manner."

    Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith

— Superintendent Tony Tata is taking control of Wake County's evolving student assignment process, aiming to prepare a new long-term plan for where students are educated by late spring.

At Tata's request, the school board agreed Tuesday to place the fractious process of developing a new model on the superintendent's shoulders.

Tata said he'd form a task force of school personnel and experts that would meld various approaches, including one proposed Friday by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership, which Tata signaled could be a foundation for his plan.

"This is a proud school district and this plan needs to stand the test of time and serve our students well into the 21st century," Tata said.

Tuesday's decision could speed a process that had been mired in political gridlock. The task of developing a long-term student assignment plan had been in the hands of the school board, which had been deeply divided on the issue.

The school board, which would still have to approve Tata's plan, traditionally doesn't complete student assignments until late winter or early spring of the year they adopt a plan.

Tata thinks he can get something into the board's hands for the 2012-13 school year by late spring of this year.

He acknowledged that it would be a major task, complicated by the board's desire for regular updates on the development of the plan.

"This community needs an aggressive plan," Tata said "The business community and the families need some predictability."

Tata joked that they'd lock task force members "in a room and slide pizzas under the door" to get the plan done.

Battle has been long

Wake's student assignment fight has been intense for the past 15 months with the board and community split over the use of neighborhood schools and diversity in student assignments.

For decades, Wake sought to diversify schools through race and then socioeconomics, busing students and using magnet schools to balance student enrollment. But the school board majority that took office in 2009 dropped diversity from the student assignment policy, opting to let geography rule.

A potential turning point came Friday when the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership presented a model they're asking the school board to consider.

Instead of being assigned to a specific school based on their addresses, families would rank where they'd want to go from a list of school choices. Efforts would be made to prevent schools from having too many low-performing students.

The plan would allow more students to attend schools closer to where they live while providing diversity through the use of student achievement as a factor in student assignments.

The proposal has drawn immediate interest from both Republican and Democratic school board members who say it could be a good starting point.

School board member John Tedesco said Tuesday it was time to disband his student assignment committee and have Tata look at the chamber model. Other board members rapidly agreed to turn over the issue to Tata.

"I wholeheartedly agree with handing the reins to the superintendent and staff on this," said Debra Goldman, school board vice chairwoman.

Tata said he was impressed by Friday's proposal from business and community leaders.

"It seems to have a lot of community support," Tata said of the chamber plan. "It could be a good foundation."

Tata said the task force will also look at other ideas, such as the current student assignment model, the zone model that Tedesco had been working on and other proposals from the community.

"I think what we're going to have is sort of a third option," Tata said.

3,600 students to move

The decision to put the long-term plan into Tata's hands came on the day the board put the final touches on the 2011-12 student assignment plan that will result in more than 3,600 students changing schools this fall.

The board had voted Feb. 1 to move about 3,500 students to different schools. A final group of 136 students who were added late to the plan got approved after a public hearing Tuesday.

Among the moves approved Tuesday was to send 15 students from school board member John Tedesco's Garner neighborhood to Aversboro Elementary, from Creech Road Elementary. While the move means Tedesco's neighbors will have a shorter commute, critics accused him of trying to send the area to a school with fewer poor children.

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

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