Wake school board will consider assignment compromise Tuesday

Wake board on Tuesday considers compromise for 2013-14 school year

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comSeptember 16, 2012 


A Wake County School Bus arrives for the morning pick up on Chimney Hill Dr. in Apex, N.C. on Thursday September 6, 2012.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

  • Years of shifting plans It’s likely Wake County students will be assigned to schools based on three different plans in consecutive school years – 2011-12, this year and next year. Through the 2000s, students were assigned under a policy that tried to balance school populations based on students’ economic background. However, during the period’s surging growth, many families protested that assignments changed too often and that students were going to schools too far from home. Critics also said the policy wasn’t actually helping the low-income children from downtown Raleigh whom it placed in suburban schools. Republicans swept into office in 2009 and first proposed a zoned plan with a focus on neighborhood schools. With the assistance of Massachusetts consultant Michael Alves, Superintendent Tony Tata and staff devised a “controlled choice” plan, with no assignments tied to addresses. That plan passed in October and is in effect during the current school year. But the Democratic board elected later in fall 2011 has taken another position, directing Tata and staff in June to draw up a new plan they said would retain some elements of choice, while going back to tying addresses to specific schools and restoring some elements of diversity, using student achievement targets.. Tuesday’s school board meeting will mark the public introduction of the plan.
  • Speak out on the assignment plan Starting Tuesday, Wake County parents will be able to go to the district’s website, www.wcpss.net, to register to speak at one of five public hearings on the new student assignment plan. The hearings will be held: •  6:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at North Garner Middle School, 720 Powell Drive, Garner. •  6:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at Leesville Road High School, 8409 Leesville Road, Raleigh. •  11 a.m. Sept. 29 at Ligon Middle School, 706 E. Lenoir St., Raleigh. •  6:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at Panther Creek High School, 6770 McCrimmon Parkway, Cary. •  6:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at Rolesville Middle School, 4700 Burlington Mills Road, Rolesville. Speakers can also sign up in person at the events. Speakers may talk for as long as three minutes.

A renewal of Wake County’s longtime controversy over “neighborhood schools” appears likely on Tuesday, when school board members will receive a proposal for the system’s third assignment plan in as many years.

The developing plan, a product of changing times, board turnover and parental dissatisfaction, has been hatched by school assignment staff under a directive from the board’s Democratic majority. According to early glimpses provided to board members, the new plan will return to addresses tied to specific schools, with an effort to accommodate proximity, stability and diversity.

Board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton said stability is one of the keys to a successful plan, which should also support diversity without relying heavily on busing children from low-income families to distant schools.

“You can’t send people clear across the county for diversity if you are still trying to have them tied to a reasonable proximity,” said Sutton, a Democrat. “I don’t know that we have the complete answer to that.”

Sutton appears to be walking a fine line between an approach that ensures balanced schools through busing and one that leans more heavily on sending students to nearby schools. It’s not fair, Sutton said, to place the burden of equity entirely on busing low-income students to suburban schools.

Other Democratic board members have said the choice-based plan that went into effect in July isn’t doing enough to prevent the growth of schools that isolate low-achieving students and students from low-income families. Republicans have said the choice plan is an overall success that should be given more than a single year to prove itself.

None of the school board members has seen the complete plan that will be unveiled Tuesday. Instead, board members met with school administrators in small groups as the new plan was being developed.

In addition to providing for base schools, the board’s directive told staff to build a new plan focused on student achievement, stability and proximity. The goal was to keep each school from having too many low-achieving students while reducing reassignments and allowing families to go to a school “within a reasonable distance” of their homes.

Republican school board member John Tedesco said the new approach appears to be a workable hybrid of the old assignment plan and the choice plan. He praised the new plan’s strong focus on proximity and its provision for families to apply to multiple schools in their areas.

“It’s certainly not everything I had hoped for, but I’m appreciative of what I’m seeing,” Tedesco said.

One of the things Tedesco said he appreciates is that, at least through the initial phases of the plan, it doesn’t call for reassigning students based on student achievement. Doing that, he said, would be an attempt to revive the former busing-for-diversity policy.

But Democratic school board member Jim Martin says the lack of a strong emphasis on diversity has left him dissatisfied with what he’s seen so far from staff. He said all that staff has done is develop a “neighborhood school plan.”

“The plan needs to address the demographic issue,” Martin said.

Martin said the first priority of the new plan should have been student achievement followed by stability and then proximity. Instead, he said, the new staff proposal appears to put proximity first and doesn’t do enough to balance school demographics.

“We have issues of achievement to address,” Martin said. “Student assignment can’t address it all, but it certainly need to be one of the tools.”

Welcome tweak of current plan

Board members asked Superintendent Tony Tata in June to begin work on a new assignment plan for the next school year, 2013-2014.

This year, students are attending under the choice-based plan devised and passed in the late stages of the Republican-dominated board’s tenure. The board lineup elected last fall chose not to discard the choice plan, saying there was too little time to complete a new method before the start of school this year.

Since year-round schools started in July, thousands of Wake County families have dealt with late-arriving or absent buses, part of a transportation mess that many parents have linked to the choice assignment plan. Administrators have responded that the problems are instead a result of efforts to increase efficiency and save money on buses.

Vicky Helms is a parent at Apex Elementary, which has experienced problems with late and unpredictable bus routes since school began.

“The whole school choice plan, when you look at the whole logistics of it, revealed some big internal problems – the lack of any sort of capability,” Helms said.

Busing problems aside, the choice plan appears to be working well for many parents, administration officials say. Tata has also predicted that the new plan will contain some elements of the choice plan and will work even better for Wake parents and students.

When the choice plan went into effect, many parents and real-estate agents complained about the lack of a base school for each address. That feature of the choice plan was designed to allow flexibility in the face of growth, but it caused more unpredictability than many Wake families could stomach. Tying each address to a relatively nearby school won’t be difficult on the face of it, Sutton said.

“We’ll be able to achieve a destinational school tied to their address,” Sutton said. “That’s not to say it will be the closest school to it. It may be the next closest school. That’s not difficult.

“We are trying to maintain some balanced and healthy schools, we are also trying to maintain some reasonable distance to schools and trying to keep some stability for the kids,” Sutton said.

But Tedesco said that going back to base schools means there will be reassignments again in the future.

One area that Martin and Tedesco agreed is a good step in the new plan is that it addresses the issue of stability. A frequent complaint about the old plan is that families, especially those in high-growth areas, don’t know from year to year whether they’d be reassigned.

The new plan is expected to give more families the option to stay at the school they’re attending even if their address is reassigned.

After Tuesday, the school board will hold five public hearings with a final vote potentially coming in late October.

Tedesco said board members need to compromise to get a plan passed that has bipartisan support, especially with plans under way to ask voters next year to approve a new school construction bond referendum.

While the choice plan was approved last year by Republican and Democratic members, the June directive was passed on a party-line vote with only Democrats in support

“If the assignment plan doesn’t have bipartisan support, it will be a challenge selling the bond to the community,” Tedesco said.

But Martin said that it’s just “politics” to link the vote on the new plan with the passage of the bond issue. “We need to do what’s right for good governance,” Martin said.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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