CARY — Wake County's new student assignment plan is drawing concern from some Democratic school board members who think it's hurting the system's popular magnet school program.
Board members meeting Tuesday questioned figures showing a sharp drop in the number of magnet applications compared to prior years.
"It seems to me that demand for magnets has gone down by half," said new Democratic school board member Christine Kushner in remarks to staff members. "I'm concerned about that decline. I hope it's something you are paying attention to."
Staff members replied that magnet applications are one of the areas they are monitoring as the new assignment plan is put in place.
Maintaining the magnet program was billed as one of the priorities of the plan adopted in October. However, numbers show that Wake received 4,296 magnet applications for the coming school year, compared with 8,469 applications for this school year.
Administrators gave various reasons for explaining the decline including:
More than 1,800 current magnet students were pre-assigned to magnet schools for sixth- and ninth-grades without having to apply, as they would have in the past if they wanted to stay in the program.
Under the new plan, families who live near a magnet school are no longer able to submit a magnet application for that school. Instead, they'll apply via the application process that started this month.
Families may have been discouraged from applying because for the first time, the number of available seats was listed, and some schools had few openings.
Families may have taken a "wait and see" approach because of the new plan.
During a presentation to school board members Tuesday, staff members said many parents have been attracted to the program because it offers the kind of predictable path through grade levels that is supposed to be supplied to all students under the new assignment plan.
Board members also suggested that the new plan, which emphasizes proximity in assignment, may also be cutting into the number of slots for academically gifted students at two magnet middle schools that offer specialized programs. Fewer academically gifted students at the school could mean a weaker program, they said.
Jim Martin, a member of the new Democratic majority elected last fall, said that the school administration appeared to be heading for difficulties in finding slots for all the academically gifted students in Wake County.
"What are we doing to address the high-end students, to make the sure the high-end students don't get disadvantaged?" Martin asked.
One of Martin's concerns was that large numbers of students from the new Walnut Creek Elementary school would crowd out magnet applicants from Carnage Middle School, one of two Wake magnet middle schools that offer specialized programs for academically gifted students. Administrators said preliminary numbers project a sharp drop in the number of academically gifted students at Carnage, where Martin's son is a magnet student.
Former Vice Chairman John Tedesco, a member of the previous, Republican-backed board majority, said Martin was presuming that Walnut Creek students will lower Carnage's overall academic performance.
"It shows bias towards the students themselves, which I think is unfair," Tedesco said.
Superintendent Tony Tata and staff said they will be able to deal more effectively with the situation once they analyze parents' wishes expressed in the ongoing school choice process.
Magnet applicants who qualify for the gifted program and have been placed on a waiting list would then be given first priority to fill vacant seats at Carnage and Ligon Middle School.
Democratic board member Susan Evans joined Martin in expressing concern that Wake administrators hadn't planned adequately.
"I'm equally concerned about the high numbers of AG Basics students that won't get into a program," Martin said.
Tata maintained that the system is developing contingency plans but must wait for parents' decisions before definitively addressing the magnet populations.
"We are aware of the potential, and we are monitoring it, and we are allowing parents to make their decisions," he said.
When Martin persisted, Tata said: "We are talking past each other. I am not saying, 'Let's wait and see.' "