Wake school board's debate stings principals

Educators see lack of respect

Staff WriterFebruary 28, 2011 

— Wake County principals, the on-the-ground managers who carry out the school board's policies, have been publicly mum during the bitter debate over Wake's shift to neighborhood schools.

But an informal, anonymous poll - conducted last month by Wake's new superintendent - indicates that at least 20 percent of the county's principals strongly oppose the move away from a student-assignment policy that used socio-economic factors to balance school enrollment - or at least opposed how the school board has conducted itself during the past year.

Only one of the 163 principals praised efforts to send students to schools closer to where they live.

"The tone for the current board majority is disrespectful to school staff members." one principal wrote. "... Political agendas prevail at the expense of students. What was once a flagship system is now a national joke."

The sentiment emerged during a meeting organized by new Superintendent Tony Tata. On Jan. 31, Tata's first day as superintendent, he gave each principal index cards. He asked them to anonymously list three things that Wake should stop doing and the three things the district, budget permitting, should be doing.

Tata, who said he's reviewing the cards, wanted the comments to be anonymous so that the principals "would speak their mind."

Copies of the index cards were obtained by The News & Observer last week after a public records request.

The responses offered a rare glimpse into the thinking of Wake schools' top administrators. Tata said the comments don't reflect widespread staff dissatisfaction with the school board, adding that everybody is working toward a common goal of improving the school district.

"It doesn't surprise me that there would be a handful of them that are going to bevocal," Tata said of the critical principals. "There are nine school board members who want what's best for Wake County."

Dislike the bickering

Indeed, most of the principals steered clear of talking about student assignment and the school board.

The small group of dissenting principals wrote that they supported the old policy of using diversity in student assignments.

More than 20 principals,many of whom didn't comment on the diversity policy, also complained about the bickering on the school board and accused board members of serving special interests.

"Help calm the fears of those teachers etc. working in Wake -- the Board has truly divided this system," wrote one principal to Tata. "Many wonderful educators want to leave Wake because of the Board actions."

Another principal wrote of the need to start "rebuilding relationships and respect between" the staff and school board. "The WCPSS staff perceive that [the school board] ... has zero interest in building positive relationships with central office staff and school administrators."

School board Chairman Ron Margiotta, who heads the majority that voted to eliminate the use of diversity in the student assignment policy last year, said he expects the principals who disagree with the board's direction to be professional enough to do their jobs.

"As long as they understand they have an obligation to follow the directions of the leadership, it's OK with me," Margiotta said. "That's part of life."

School board member Carolyn Morrison said the negative comments shouldn't affect those principals' performance. Morrison is a retired Wake principal and supporter of the old diversity policy. "You're trained to be a professional and not let your personal feelings affect how you act," Morrison said.

The school board, which has argued internally and with the public, has put the student assignment issue in Tata's hands.

Tata has formed a task force that he hopes will present a long-term student assignment plan to the school board by late spring. One of the things the task force will consider is a proposal from the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership to factor test scores into a plan that would allow families to choose where they want to go while trying to prevent schools from having too many low-achieving students.

Fear Charlotte model

Several principals warned that Wake shouldn't emulate Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, which abandoned the use of busing for diversity in 2002. The number of schools in Charlotte with high concentrations of poor and minority students has shot up over the past nine years, but the district's minority and low-income students outperform their peers in Wake on some state exams.

Wake should "not go down road of Charlotte schools where critics say they have ghetto schools," one Wake principal wrote.

School board members differed over what the comments on the diversity policy and the board mean.

School board member Chris Malone said that the board questioning staff about issues shouldn't be perceived as disrespect. He added that it's fine with him if principals disagree with the board as long as they're doing their job of educating the students. "If we ask tough questions as a school board that they find to be a problem, then maybe they should look for another job," Malone said.

School board member Keith Sutton thinks the principals who spoke out could represent a larger group of principals who support the old diversity policy. He said Wake needs to do a better job of listening to principals and teachers before making decisions.

"I'm also encouraged that the superintendent gave them an opportunity where they could share their thoughts with him," Sutton said.

But Malone said one could also interpret the comments to indicate that most of Wake's principals support the move to neighborhood schools. He said people would be making "assumptions" on the beliefs of principals who didn't comment on the diversity policy.

Other ideas on the cards

As for other comments from the principals, no one issue was raised by a majority.

Among the ideas that got a lot of support were increasing funding for technology in schools and expanding the number of alternative schools.

On things that Wake should stop, two that were among the most mentioned were adding too many initiatives at a time and piling paperwork on teachers, principals and schools. Tata and Malone said reducing paperwork should be a priority.

"If teachers could have less paperwork they could spend more time with the class," Malone said. "We're turning them into bureaucrats instead of letting them be teachers."

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

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