CARY — The Democrat-led Wake County school board agreed Tuesday to allow the startup without changes of a student assignment plan developed when the board was under Republican leadership.
The plan's provisions are already in effect; parents can sign up Tuesday for one of the several school options previously offered to them under the choice-based system. Democrats had criticized the plan as likely to result in high concentrations of low-achieving and minority students in some schools.
The decision not to seek immediate changes means that the battle over how to assign Wake's 146,000 students at least has reached a temporary milestone after three years of community conflict that included two hotly contested elections, multiple arrests of protesters, and fiery rhetoric on all sides. Members of the Democrat-controlled board pledged to monitor implementation closely for a host of potential problems, and schools Superintendent Tony Tata, an architect of the plan, said changes could still be made for this fall.
"I think it's important to note that many people think this plan has been rushed," said Christine Kushner, part of the new majority.
Recalling the language of the 1960s civil rights movement, Kushner urged the board to "keep our eyes on the prize" of student achievement and equal opportunities among Wake's more than 160 schools.
The development, or lack of it, brought an anti-climactic end to yet another chapter in Wake County's more than 30-year saga of trying to provide high-level, equitable education for students from low-income areas downtown as well as those from the affluent western suburbs. After the meeting, Tata said staff would take signals from the decisions parents make among the schools offered as options for their children.
"It will all depend on how parents choose," Tata said. "We'll analyze the data and make recommendations based on the data."
During a work session before the full board meeting, members opted not to change the plan to set aside seats in high-performing schools for students displaced by magnet school students.
For different reasons, Democrat Jim Martin and Republican John Tedesco both argued against the idea.
"We know that there are some schools that do not serve some of our most vulnerable students as well as they should," Tedesco said. "I'm concerned that with set-asides ... we send some of our most vulnerable students into schools that are not prepared for them."
Board Chairman Kevin Hill, a Democrat, said the board is poised to start "monitoring, adjusting and training" to make the plan work. "I think we are trying to do the best that we can for the most," Hill said.
The decision not to modify the plan now pleased the Republican board members who had helped pass it in October.
They had argued that potential changes would have taken away some students' choice to attend their closest school.
"We're moving forward as a county to provide parents with proximity and stability," Tedesco said.
Most of the 20 speakers at Tuesday's public comment session criticized the plan, from the potential cost to the impact on low-performing students, to how it would treat applicants leaving charter schools.
Raleigh resident Ann Campbell cited lack of budget analysis. She and her husband, John, gave at least $40,000 to the Democratic school board candidates' campaigns during the fall election.
"It's clear to me that we need to delay implementation of the half-baked, so-called choice assignment plan," said Campbell, who was then singled out by Republican board member Deborah Prickett for her political contributions.
Kushner, along with other members of the new Democratic majority, had talked about making changes to the plan to boost the chances for low-performing students to get into high-performing schools. Board members had also talked about changing feeder patterns, the mandated kindergarten-through-high-school pathways for students.
But for now, administrators said, they'll monitor how the plan affects issues such as how schools are filled and what it does to a school's academic balance. Kushner and other Democratic board members said they expect to hear if the school staff thinks changes in the plan are needed now instead of waiting until the 2013-14 school year.
"Having academically balanced schools is something our community has always supported," said Patty Williams of the grassroots organization the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, which supported delaying the plan for a year. "There should never be children who win and children who lose."
The state NAACP issued an open letter Tuesday saying there were too many unanswered questions about the plan to move ahead with it. But groups such as the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce favor moving ahead.