Wake accreditation is on the line

STAFF WRITERSFebruary 17, 2011 

  • One of the complaints from critics of AdvancED is why the group is targeting Wake County at the same time it accredits a number of much lower-performing high schools in North Carolina and around the country.

    Mark Elgart, president of AdvancED, said accreditation "isn't a perfect system." He said one thing they want is to better align accreditation status with state performance standards.

    But Elgart said that doesn't take away from whether Wake's potential violation of governance standards could ultimately affect academic performance of the high schools.

— School board members hoping to keep accreditation at Wake County's high schools will spend the next two days explaining how they've made major decisions.

A special review team from AdvancED, a national accreditation agency based in Georgia, will grill school board members to see whether they've been following their own policies and procedures.

The review has been the subject of intense political debate, rooted in the board's elimination of the use of socioeconomic diversity in student assignment. The decision to move toward neighborhood schools has sparked infighting among board members and the community, sparking a state NAACP complaint that led to the accreditation review.

School board members initially balked at the review, accusing AdvancED of being politically motivated. But they ultimately agreed to cooperate rather than risk losing accreditation for Wake's 24 high schools.

Mark Elgart, president of AdvancED, said the review team will probe allegations that the school board majority that took office in 2009 violated board policies when it made decisions. Reviewers will also question how the school board will follow through on a resolution to provide "equity and equal opportunity" for all students.

"We're not here to push anybody's agenda or to investigate every single action," Elgart said. "We're looking at what's happening and what should be happening."

In addition to interviewing school board members today and Friday,AdvancED will meet with Superintendent Tony Tata, former interim Superintendent Donna Hargens, senior administrators, principals and high school students. The team also will interview members of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, the Wake County PTA Council, the Wake Schools Community Alliance and the Great Schools in Wake Coalition.

"I'm hoping it's not going to be a witch hunt," said Kristen Stocking, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, which opposed the old diversity policy. "I'm going in with an open mind."

Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Great Schools in Wake, which supported the old diversity policy, said they'd talk about the "costs and consequences" of going to a neighborhood schools plan.

"One of the things we are going to share with them is the research we have on the way the Wake schools have been operating," Brannon said, pointing to Wake's record of student achievement during the past decade with few funding increases.

Wake not like Burke

AdvancED agreed last summer to investigate Wake after a complaint from the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Veteran Chapel Hill lawyer Al McSurely represents the NAACP in complaints against Wake to AdvancED and to the Office for Civil Rights of the federal education department. McSurely said the idea for the civil rights group's actions in Wake arose after leaders learned of what they saw as parallels between the situation in Burke County, where the school board censured a member for forwarding e-mail with racial slurs, and in Wake, where board Chairman Ron Margiotta called protesters "animals" in an aside.

"That was very similar to the preliminary complaint in Burke County," McSurely said, acknowledging that Margiotta wasn't referring to black people in the audience. "It was still arrogant, like some of the stakeholders were legitimate, some of them weren't, whether it was against black people or people that disagreed with him."

AdvancED has notified Burke County school leaders that it will strip accreditation from the high schools in the Western North Carolina school district at the end of the school year. A loss of school accreditation could make it harder for students to get scholarships, loans and college acceptances.

Elgart said there's no comparison between what took place in Burke County and the situation in Wake.

"The issue in Wake is clearly policy adoption and dealing with how that is being done," Elgart said. "We're not saying this is a dysfunctional board that doesn't know how to get along."

Elgart also said AdvancED is not trying to dictate the policies that the school board should follow. But he said the way the school board has acted in terms of how it made its decisions could run afoul of AdvancED's accreditation standards for members.

For instance, Elgart pointed to the Oct. 5 resolution passed by the school board that killed work on a plan to divide the county into 16 community-based assignment zones. Wording in the resolution by the Democratic school board members who worked with GOP Vice Chairwoman Debra Goldman to kill the zone plan said that Wake would provide "equity and equal opportunity for a sound basic education, for all our students, as provided by in our Constitution."

Elgart questioned how the school board would ensure that "equity and equal opportunity."

"We're telling them it's their right to assign students as they wish," Elgart said. "But when you have a resolution that says you will ensure equality of opportunity, you have to say how you will do that."

School board members Chris Malone and John Tedesco argued that lack of equity is something that was put in place with the old board, especially comparing the offerings between magnet schools and non-magnet schools.

The NAACP had also charged in its complaint that the school board was violating its policies as it made decisions.

That's a concern shared by school board member Kevin Hill, a supporter of the old diversity policy. Hill argues that the school board should have made changes to school board policies on the basis of a two-thirds majority and not the simple majority that was often used.

Malone said that the board majority was "walking a fine line" at times but was still making decisions within board rules. Tedesco added that the majority members made decisions after consulting with longtime school board attorney Ann Majestic.

"Ann Majestic is one of the best education lawyers in North Carolina," Tedesco said. "We listened to her and deferred to her."

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

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