Wake school board runoff will affect decisions

The District 3 school board race sets the tone on more than student assignment.

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.com, hui@newsobserver.comNovember 7, 2011 

The Wake County school board faces a new student-assignment plan, a budget that promises tough decisions and debate on when to ask voters for permission to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars.

Those decisions - and others facing the state's biggest school district - will be affected by Tuesday's runoff election in District 3.

Democratic incumbent Kevin Hill, 57, and Republican challenger Heather Losurdo, 40, have battled in the North Raleigh district since before the Oct. 11 election. Hill came 51 votes shy of the majority needed to win the seat from a field of four candidates. Losurdo got 40 percent of the vote.

The runoff will determine the political tilt of the nine-member board, split at four Democrats and four Republicans after the October election.

Here's how the student-assignment, budget and bond issues could play out under Democratic or Republican control:

Student assignment: The assignment plan was passed by the board last month at the urging ofSuperintendent Tony Tata.

Some changes are expected as the new choice-based student plan goes into effect next year. But the extent of the changes could depend on which side has control.

Tata has said the district will need to adjust as school officials see how families make their school choices. Instead of automatically being assigned to a specific school, families will pick from a list.

A continued Republican majority is less likely to push for changes. Republicans have hailed the new plan, which places a priority on proximity, as moving Wake more toward neighborhood schools.

A Democratic majority would likely advocate for changes, with some newly elected board members having urged the current board to delay its vote. Hill has said he's concerned the plan doesn't do enough to ensure seats are set aside at high-performing schools for students applying from low-performing areas.

Losurdo has said a Democratic majority would result in forced busing to promote diversity. Hill has said he's not looking to scrap the new plan but just to make a few revisions.

Budget: The system's budget, already cut on per-pupil terms for three straight years, could easily face more trimming depending on county and state revenues.

The school board has dusted off teacher layoff policies in case the worst happens. Nearly $30 million in one-time federal funding that paid for more than 500 teachers this year will be gone. If teachers are fired, the revised layoff policy says job performance would weigh ahead of seniority.

Tata had his staff comb through the rest of the $1.2 billion operating budget to try to replace that $30 million. But replacing that money won't be easy, considering Wake still has to prepare for potentially 4,000 more students next year amid uncertain funding from the state and county. A Democratic majority could demand an increase in funding from the Republican-led county commissioners. Hill has said he would support asking for more money, even if it leads to a property tax increase, to ensure students get what they need.

If Republicans retain the majority, they could maintain the approach taken the past two years of not asking commissioners for an increase. Losurdo has said asking for more money isn't always the answer and wants to review the budget for more potential cuts.

Bond issue: A bond issue will be subject to the stagnant economy and widespread anti-tax sentiment.

Five years after voters approved a $970 million school construction bond issue, construction needs for new schools and renovation projects have emerged.

Wake is no longer growing by 7,000 students a year. But more than 3,000 new students each year has strained schools.

School board members will decide, in consultation with commissioners, when to hold the next referendum and how much money to request.

A Democratic majority could find itself at odds with the GOP-led county commissioners in the size and scope of the next construction program. Past bond referendums have been scaled back to minimize any property tax increase.

A Republican majority could push for a smaller bond issue with cheaper schools and fewer renovation projects.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929