Wake delays hearings on student assignment plan

Board members say plan lacked the necessary details

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comSeptember 18, 2012 

— Wake County school board members opted Tuesday to put off five public hearings designed to debut a new school assignment plan, saying the proposal lacked details needed to judge it adequately.

Board members debated whether maps that will lay out the new attendance zones for base schools should be released before the public hearings are held. The meetings were scheduled to begin next week, in preparation for a board vote tentatively scheduled for Oct. 30. Democrats and Republicans agreed, for different reasons, that the plan needs more detail about how to measure achievement, a key component of assignment under the proposal.

“I’m glad to hear that student achievement was used in the base assignment process,” said Democratic board member Jim Martin. “We need to see actually how this is going to work.”

Members gave no indication that the delay in hearings meant that Democrats were stepping back from their goal of replacing this year’s choice-based plan in time for the 2013-14 school year. A board attorney advised members that policy changes would have to be passed before the plan could be adopted.

Democratic board members Christine Kushner and Susan Evans argued that the plan should be judged on its broad concepts, not on the minutiae of specific assignments that would come if the maps were released now. They said that they want to release the maps for comments on specific assignments at a later date.

“I do not think this is feasible,” Evans wrote in comments to the assignment staff. “The board will not have had a chance to weigh in on these, and it is very important that we have that opportunity prior to getting the public involved...

“If the attendance maps have been given, the public will focus in the weeds in that minutiae and not on the framework.”

“Just from past experience with public comment sessions, it’s valuable for parents to be able to go in and take a look,” Republican member Deborah Prickett said during the meeting. “Parents are very concerned about their individual situations.”

Board members stressed that they want to hold the public hearings at some point to get feedback.

Families will eventually be able to go online to the district’s website, www.wcpss.net, to plug in their address to see which base schools are assigned to their location.

School administrators presented a draft plan for the 2013-14 school year that uses student achievement to balance school enrollments. Democratic board members were concerned that the plan doesn’t do enough to keep schools from having too many low-performing students, while Republican board members said they were concerned the plan put too much focus on test scores.

Martin used the example of this year’s bus problems to argue that the board needs more details on using achievement in assignment.

“We were assured that everything was going to work,” Martin said. “I didn’t believe it, and ... it didn’t work.”

Concerns about achievement

Republican board members Chris Malone and John Tedesco said that they are concerned about the use of student achievement as a factor in assigning students. Malone said he was concerned it could result in grade inflation at schools to keep students from being moved.

“I’m a little concerned with where we’re going with that,” Malone said.

But most of the remarks on the plan were positive.

I’m very pleased overall with the direction I’m seeing,” said Democratic Vice Chairman Keith Sutton.

A main element of the new plan is going back to “base schools,” in which each address is tied to a specific school to provide families some sense of certainty of which school they’ll be attending. Real estate agents had also complained that the current “choice” plan makes it difficult to assure potential buyers that they will get a desirable school.

In addition, the draft plan calls for the ability to “cap” over-enrolled schools, and for parents to be able to apply to any school, except a magnet, that has empty seats. Both of these features are holdovers from the current choice-based plan and are designed to make the most efficient use of all schools.

‘Good product here’

“We feel like we’ve got a good product here, something I think the people of Wake County will be in favor of,” Superintendent Tony Tata said before Tuesday’s meeting. “We tried to honor some of the things we said we’d do in last year’s plan, and carry that forward.”

The repeated message throughout Tuesday’s presentation was that the new assignment plan lets students stay at their current school. They’ll keep their current bus service unless they are assigned to two new schools opening next year – Abbotts Creek Elementary in North Raleigh and Rolesville High – and choose not to attend.

“Our goal is to utilize the buildings,” said Laura Evans, senior director of growth and planning, about reassigning students to the new schools. “We want you to have stability, but you have to provide your own transportation if you do that.”

Correct the flaws

During her presentation, Evans repeatedly pointed to how they tried to correct the faults in the old base assignment plan and the choice plan while combining their strengths.

For instance, Wake divided the county into 1,300 assignment areas called “nodes,” which sometimes resulted in neighbors being split apart.

Laura Evans said they’re now dividing the county into 9,000 real estate parcels, whose smaller size would allow them to do a better job of keeping neighborhoods and subdivisions together.

She also pointed to how, in the plan, students who are not at the base school will be able to file paperwork to go back to their base in the following school year if there’s space. Some magnet school families had complained that the choice plan had taken away the option under the old assignment plan for them to return to their base school when they wanted to do so.

Several public speakers addressed Monday’s resignation of Don Haydon, the system’s former chief facilities and operations officer.

During this school year’s many problems with buses, Wake made a cost-saving effort to serve several thousand more students with 52 fewer buses. Most of the buses have since been added back.

Speaker Amy Lee suggested that Tata should have stepped down instead of Haydon, whose duties included oversight of transportation.

“We had a large-scale failed mission, and now the wrong person has been relieved of duty,” said Lee, a proponent of the diversity-based assignment plan that an earlier board discarded two years ago.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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