Raleigh mayor: School assignment plan starting to hurt business recruitment

Nancy McFarlane says uncertainty may keep some businesses away

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.com April 12, 2012 

Nancy McFarlane

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— Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane caused a stir Wednesday after saying that uncertainty about the new Wake County student assignment plan is beginning to hurt efforts to recruit businesses and families to the area.

McFarlane spoke at a morning meeting of school board members and other mayors of Wake County municipalities. However, later Wednesday, a city Realtors association took a wait-and-see attitude on the issue, while the Chamber of Commerce said it knew of no company that had stayed away because of the schools.

School Superintendent Tony Tata, also at the event, said he took McFarlane’s comments seriously and would work with the school board on meeting any concerns from company executives and others who worry about the placement of children from newcomers’ families

“With us trying to recruit businesses to come here, we are trying to compete with municipalities all around the globe,” McFarlane, a former City Council member and first-term mayor, said during the meeting. “The big thing is, ‘Where are my kids going to go to school?’ And there’s no answer. That’s a deal breaker.”

McFarlane said she is starting to hear that some businesses have second thoughts about coming here. Later Wednesday, the Raleigh Association of Realtors chose not to take a position on what it called the “very complex issue” that is still evolving.

“It is very important to our members, our association and parents in Wake County,” the group’s statement said. “We will be keeping a very close eye on the situation. We are eager to continue working with the school system and will be closely evaluating this as it unfolds.”

Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and a backer of the new choice plan, said he was not aware of any company that has chosen not to relocate to Raleigh because of the school system. Schmitt said that McFarlane was, understandably, reacting to anxiety expressed by constituents in pockets of town where schools are in high demand and overcrowded.

McFarlane ascended the city’s political ranks as a school and neighborhood volunteer. The mother of three helped lead the PTAs at Lead Mine Elementary and Durant Middle schools before joining the City Council in 2007 as representative for North Raleigh.

Wading into the school assignment debate poses potential risks for the new mayor, who ran as an independent. Former Mayor Charles Meeker, a Democrat, faced criticism in 2010 after he spoke out against decisions by the school board’s then-Republican majority.

Meeker said the board’s Republican members “are not from the area” and “don’t share our values.” City government plays no direct role in the schools, a county operation.

Under the new assignment plan, families are given a choice of five or more schools, but newcomers will likely find themselves near the bottom of the list for a popular school. The mayor’s office released emails Wednesday to illustrate the discontent she said is coming from businesses and residents. Almost all concerned individual residents’ decisions on where to live.

“How can we expect to attract newcomers to Raleigh when a prospective buyer is faced with such an unknown(?)” resident Deanna Adams wrote. “Even private school is a dicey prospect, with most having wait lists due to parents’ unease about public school changes.”

General contractor Ed Brinkley wrote McFarlane that the situation in Wake schools was affecting his business to the point he might shut it down.

“I have no intentions of doing anymore until this school nonsense is straightened out,” Brinkley wrote. “How do I tell a buyer that you can work downtown, live downtown, eat downtown, shop downtown, party downtown, go to plays and concerts downtown, but I have no idea where your kids are going to school?”

McFarlane’s statement comes at a time when the community group the Great Schools in Wake Coalition is making a push toward a plan more similar to Wake’s previous method, which was based assignment on students’ addresses.

“What we’ve done is rush headlong and make a major change,” said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Great Schools. “We’ve just upset a lot of parents, realtors, business people and taxpayers, for what? What have we accomplished?”

Ron McFarlane, the mayor’s husband, was on the board of WakeUp Wake County, Great Schools’ parent group, in 2011 and is now listed on the group’s nonvoting board of advisers.

On whether the assignment plan is helping to attract families connected to new businesses, Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny echoed McFarlane’s concern.

“The schools affect our growth,” Matheny said. “We have been able to entice industry to our area. We would like to see those folks live down there, too.”

Both Tata and school board member Debra Goldman noted that the former school assignment plan, based on families’ addresses, also had raised questions with businesses and families contemplating a move to Raleigh.

“We’re also hearing from Realtors that they like this, they like this choice,” Goldman said.

Board member Christine Kushner voiced concern about the possible reluctance of newcomers to move to Wake based on the assignment plan.

“That’s always been one of our strengths – the schools,” Kushner said.

Tata said the school board and he would consider moves such as increasing capacity at some schools, even though that would run counter to a goal of reducing overcrowding by making best use of all schools’ capacity.

“There are some things we can perhaps do better,” Tata said. “As you implement, you learn lessons and take those lessons and try to improve.”

Staff writers Matt Garfield and T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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