RALEIGH — The Wake County school board has created a climate of uncertainty and mistrust in the community, according to a report by accreditation agency AdvancED, which warned school leaders that they have a year to fix problems or risk losing accreditation for their high schools.
The report, released Wednesday, accuses the Republican school board majority of dividing the community by giving inadequate notice of major actions and making policy decisions, such as eliminating the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignment, without compelling data.
AdvancED says the school board must show it is meeting acceptable governance and leadership standards to keep the accreditation.
"Since Dec. 1, 2009, the actions and decisions of the Wake County Board of Education have resulted in creating a climate of uncertainty, suspicion, and mistrust throughout the community," the report said. "It is critical that the Board of Education and the newly appointed Superintendent establish a cohesive governance-leadership team dedicated to serving all students attending Wake County Public Schools. Additionally, the Board of Education and Superintendent must work to gain the community's trust and confidence in the school system and its ability to meet the needs of all students."
School officials noted that Wake will retain complete accreditation pending a return visit before Nov. 30 byAdvancED.
Wake's accreditation is safe through the 2011-12 school year, according to AdvancED.
Republicans gained control of the school board after the 2009 elections and quickly made policy changes.
Wake Superintendent Tony Tata said the system can meet AdvancED's requirements.
"Much of what is in that report, we already have under way," he said in an interview. "That's why I believe it's achievable. We intend to lay out all the required actions and develop timelines and metrics to achieve those actions."
The report came on the same day that Tata met with investigators from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights who are probing Wake's elimination of the diversity policy.
The federal investigation and the accreditation review stem from complaints from the state NAACP.
The Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president, could not be reached for comment.
Tata said he appreciated the timely completion of AdvancED's report so that its recommendations could be used as Wake develops its planning for a new era. Democratic board member Kevin Hill had not seen the report when reached for comment on Wednesday. But he applauded Tata's intention of meeting AdvancED's requirements.
Planning without data
The review team criticized the board majority for changing Wake's school assignment plan, which used socioeconomic diversity to balance school populations, without support from what reviewers called relevant information on student achievement, graduation rates, length of bus routes and a positive parent satisfaction survey.
"There is no compelling data to support the rationale and reasoning stated by members of the Board for the change in policy," according to the report. "In fact, throughout the interview process, it became very evident that board members were shaping policy based on personal experiences rather than relying on objective data and evidence reflecting the system as a whole."
The report said that of the high school principals interviewed by the AdvancED, most said they believe "in the benefits of the prior Student Assignment Policy."
Amy Womble, a Wake parent and activist who has opposed the board majority's changes, said the findings about board members lacking a sound basis for ending the diversity policy were "huge."
"They have said they have their own data, and they have refused to acknowledge Wake County data showing the improvement in the achievement gap," Womble said.
The auditors pulled few punches in criticizing the board majority that took control on Dec. 1, 2009, following fall elections that swept four new Republican members into office.
"At the beginning of this meeting four new Board members (John Tedesco, Chris Malone, Debra Goldman and Deborah Prickett) were installed," the report said. "Once installed the four new Board members joined forces with current Board member, Ron Margiotta, to launch a premeditated act that resulted in destabilizing the school system and community."
Mark Elgart, president of AdvancED, gave Wake the second-harshest possible action. It's one step short of putting the district on probation.
"Accreditation warned" status means AdvancED, located in Georgia, found at least one serious issue that needs to be corrected within the next year to keep the accreditation.
Elgart said 10 percent of their 6,000 member school districts across the country share that status.
"Much of the turmoil in the community could have been avoided if they had come in and done things differently," Elgart said.
Despite the criticism over the change in the student assignment policy, Elgart said AdvancED is not requiring Wake to go back to the old diversity-based approach.
"If they want to go with neighborhood schools or a choice model, it's up to them," Elgart said. "It's our goal to help them carry out policies."
Jennifer Mansfield, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, said the report confirms her fears that AdvancED was biased against the board majority. Her group backed the new board members and she was one of the people interviewed by AdvancED last month.
"There was definitely bias in the questions in the interview they had with us," Mansfield said. "There's so much hearsay in the report. There's no documentation."
Elgart said the school system's willingness to comply with the action steps "vindicated" their investigation.
Mansfield downplayed the significance of the report.
"It's going to energize those who are against the direction of the school board," Mansfield said. "But I don't think it will have a big impact."
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