The Wake County school board is staring the need for more schools and for school renovations squarely in the face. Will Wake commissioners be brave enough to take a look and approve a bond referendum of perhaps $1 billion to get the job done when it comes to answering needs created by an additional 4,500 students a year? Citizens who want the county to do right by students and families and not lose the momentum of growth had better hope so.
Commissioners will, as commissioners do, hesitate at the thought of a property tax increase, of course. But growth isnt just a positive on one side of the ledger. The county has to provide services for newcomers and new businesses, both of which it wants. The money to provide those services, schools first among them, isnt covered by property taxes and fees alone, but its long been held that additional residents bring all sorts of other benefits to the county and to municipalities in more money for local businesses to stimulate the economy.
OK, but more students in the schools means more schools. The only counter argument to that is to argue that we could just raise the number of students in the average classroom to 50 or 60.
So school administrators, knowing people want smaller classes, and with a pretty good idea about the patterns of growth, are charged with figuring how many new schools are needed, how they should break down in terms of year-round or traditional calendar, where they should go and how many students will occupy each one. Its no mean feat, and school officials including board members have been working on that process in anticipation of that likely bond referendum next year.
And then theres choice. The former school board majority, created in 2009 and outnumbered after last years elections, made a crusade of choice and neighborhood schools, etc. The problem was, the Wake systems noble and long-respected assignment plan factoring in economic diversity to assignments threw things into chaos. It opened the possibility of more schools with strong economic and racial divides: schools in poor areas with tremendous numbers of such children, which studies show hurts those students in terms of their ability to learn.
Enter a new majority, which essentially backed the idea of factoring in choice but also wanted Superintendent Tony Tata, hired by the old majority, to consider other factors as well in an assignment plan.
But growth, this inevitable growth, while it doesnt make choice impossible, does make it expensive. And there, says board member Jim Martin (a critic of the choice plan), is the rub. Martin says, We need to have an adult conversation about whether the community is willing to pay to provide choice. Its a valid point, because giving people choice is going to mean the county will need ever more schools. A plan wherein kids are directly assigned, without choice, doesnt create that problem.
Ideology, meet reality. Choice advocates, are you willing to pay higher taxes (and the Wake tax rate is relatively low, by the way) to have that choice?
One of the boards toughest chores is setting priorities, and the looming bond referendum has a way of complicating and clarifying that task. Board member Susan Evans believes giving families choice with regard to which calendar they prefer for their kids is a good idea, but she accepts the truth that relieving overcrowding and addressing renovation as the system grows must be the first priorities.
And so the board must formulate a bond proposal that speaks to need first,. acknowledges and invites parental input, and then make the case to commissioners that the county cant afford to go on the cheap with regard to public education.