When the Field family relocated from California to Wake County nine years ago, their home-buying decision was heavily influenced by three words that for decades have boosted the values of certain Raleigh homes: Lacy-Martin-Broughton.
The names corresponded to the elementary, middle and high school that their children had the option of attending after they purchased their home just inside the Beltline off Ridge Road.
“The fact that the schools that we were assigned to basically were such good schools was a big plus,” Alan Field said.
Today, the Fields’ three children have all graduated, and the family is trying to sell their home. But under the new Wake County student assignment plan, they are unable to mention what had been one of their home’s most attractive features.
“We can’t make any mention of those schools,” said Field, 48. “That can’t be a plus for the house because there’s no telling where those kids who move into that neighborhood will be sent.”
While much of the discussion over Wake County’s new student assignment plan originally focused on diversity, its effects on the residential real estate market have increasingly taken center stage. Although it’s too early to tell whether the plan, going into operation for the school year that starts this summer, is having any measurable effect on sales activity and prices, that hasn’t stopped supporters and opponents from using the housing market to try and make their case.
In April, Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said the new student assignment was causing both businesses and families to reconsider moving here. Superintendent Tony Tata, who has spoken to the Raleigh Regional Association of Realtors three times since being hired, argued in May that improving home sales numbers this year are a validation of the new plan.
What is undeniable is that the new plan, which uses a school-choice approach rather than assigning every address in the county to a base school, is changing the way homes are marketed. That was evident last week as several real estate agents raised concerns about the plan with the Wake County school board before it voted – after a marathon meeting – to make changes to the new plan for the school year that will begin in the fall of 2013.
Those changes appear likely to include going back to assigning each address to a base school.
Difficult for newcomers
Under the old system, a home listed for sale on Triangle Multiple Listing Services would include the base schools that were assigned to that address. Today that field is blank, as families now must rank their choices from a list of schools and wait to find out where they are accepted.
Many real estate agents complain that this system confuses and harms two major pools of potential homebuyers: newcomers with children who are relocating from outside the county; and existing families who are looking to move but don’t already have spaces reserved in the schools of their choice.
“For relocating buyers who are coming in, they don’t know what in the world to do. It’s a real mess,” said Cynthia Parker, an agent with Fonville Morisey Realty in Raleigh. “And we cannot guide them. We can’t search for a home in a specific school district.”
Parker said that while she counsels her clients to consider the overall quality of the entire Wake school system, many families will research test scores to identify a particular school they’d like their children to attend. But she said many are finding that the best schools are already full.
That’s what happened to Michelle Wilkerson. Her family recently relocated from New Orleans to Wake County, signing a contract in November to have a new home built in the Heritage community in Wake Forest.
The Wilkersons chose Wake County because of the schools, and Heritage specifically because they wanted their 7-year-old son Michael to attend Heritage Elementary, a year-round school where he has been enrolled since February.
But for the 2012-13 school year, Michael ended up being assigned to Forest Pines Drive Elementary, the family’s fourth choice and one that operates on a traditional school calendar. Wilkerson admits she didn’t know too much about the new student assignment plan back in November.
“I didn’t know as much about that as I do now,” she said. “The way it was sold to us is it’s a school-choice program so we thought no big deal. ... It didn’t sound bad.”
Wilkerson said two other families with elementary-age children just moved into her neighborhood and also failed to get into their top-ranked schools. She said her family wouldn’t have bought in Heritage if they knew how they would be treated under the new assignment plan.
“Why would we have spent the money to buy here?” she asked. “We could have bought a less-expensive home elsewhere, except we want this school district and this neighborhood.”
Real estate values have always been inextricably linked to the quality of the schools that surround them, a fact that goes a long way toward explaining why many in the real estate community have become increasingly vocal about their complaints.
Under the old assignment plan, the areas of the county that saw the most appreciation over the past several decades were often the same ones that had a direct link to Lacy-Martin-Broughton or other highly regarded school feeder patterns.
Of course, there was uncertainty under the old assignment system, but it was primarily felt by homeowners located in fast-growing areas of the county where new schools were being built. They were frequently in danger of having their neighborhoods reassigned to different schools.
The new plan has essentially extended uncertainty into all areas of the county, even inside the Beltline.
“We’ve always been going through this, especially in the growth areas,” said Phyllis Brookshire, a senior vice president with Allen Tate Real Estate. “It’s just a new animal and people don’t understand it.”
The new assignment plan has also gone into effect just as the Triangle housing market is recovering from a prolonged downturn that few in the local real-estate industry thought possible. There are fewer buyers in the market, which has made real estate agents’ jobs that much tougher.
Most of the evidence offered about how the new plan is hurting sales is anecdotal at this point. Wake County accounted for 55 percent of all home sales in the Triangle during the first quarter of this year, compared to 52 percent during the same period last year, MLS data shows.
Figuring out how the school assignment plan is changing buyers behavior is particularly challenging given the myriad of variables now affecting the housing market – expired tax credits, tighter lending guidelines and anemic job growth, to name just three.
“You think the left hand caused what the right hand did and maybe it didn’t have anything to do with it,” Brookshire said.
Brookshire, who lauded Tata for his outreach efforts with the real-estate industry, said it’s incumbent on agents to understand the new plan so that they can point potential buyers in a direction where they can learn more.
“People don’t quite know how to explain it now,” she said. “They’re going ‘I don’t know what to tell you and it’s all messed up.’ That’s not fair.”
Parker, the Fonville Morisey agent, said there’s likely to be more chaos and fear in the short term as buyers, sellers and their agents grapple with changes that have upended one of the key drivers of real estate values in the county.
“If they tweak it and we end up with some kind of hybrid, certainly I think it would get better,” she said. “Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll keep it exactly like it is now and then eventually we’ll just have to get over it and move on. Communities don’t stop because of things like this.”