CARY — After years of bitter debate over where children will go to school in Wake County, school board members welcomed a new plan Tuesday that will move fewer than 1,500 students to different schools next year.
Assignment staff presented a plan that reassigns 1,479 students for the 2013-14 school year, the smallest figure in recent history for the states largest school district. One of the ways that staff is recommending keeping reassignments down is to place enrollment caps at 34 crowded schools instead of moving students out.
The goal was to minimize reassignment, and this plan does that, board member Jim Martin said.
The one critical note Tuesday came from board member Debra Goldman, who said Wake should have stuck with the choice-based plan used this year that the boards Democratic majority discarded.
Fifteen-hundred doesnt sound like much out of 150,000, but if youre one of the 1,500, its critical to you, she said.
School board Chairman Kevin Hill said that even though a small number of children would be moved, the board will do its due diligence in reviewing the plan. He also noted how data presented Tuesday by school budget staff show that the choice plan is costing $1.1 million in added costs to run buses an extra 13,200 miles a day.
The new plan would restore the practice of assigning every address to a specific school. The choice plan had discarded that.
Both Democratic and Republican board members agreed to recommend that the staff use the 2011-12 school attendance lines, the last year prior to the choice plan, as the starting point. From there, the main focus was on filling three northeastern schools: Rolesville High, Rolesville Middle, and Richland Creek Elementary in Wake Forest.
A fourth new school, Abbotts Creek Elementary in North Raleigh, was set to open this year at a temporary modular campus. Funding for the permanent campus, which would be adjacent to the North Wake Landfill on Durant Road, would come from a future bond issue.
Laura Evans, senior director of growth and planning, the office in charge of student assignment, recommended delaying the opening of Abbotts Creek until 2014-2015 because the area near the school isnt overcrowded.
Its difficult to put students in a modular school when you dont know when the brick-and-mortar school will be built, Evans said.
A total of 1,050 students facing reassignment would be guaranteed the right to stay at their current schools because they are eligible for grandfathering.
Students could keep their bus service if they turn down a reassignment to a current school, but theyd lose transportation if they turned down an assignment to one of the new schools.
Staff is calling for a much greater use of capping, a practice designed to keep new students from attending severely overcrowded schools.
If you cap a school, all existing students can stay, Evans said. If you propose reassignment, somebody has to change schools.
Under the staff plan, 12 schools would be recommended for full caps, meaning if they reach a certain number of students, then new people who move in after that point would not be allowed to attend this school year. A decision would be made later on whether to keep the cap in place for 2013-2014.
The plan also would place partial caps on 22 schools if they reach certain enrollments. This means that the schools would still take new students who move into their attendance areas, but not people who live outside of it unless they have older siblings now attending.
School board member Susan Evans called capping the lesser of the evils because it would affect fewer students than reassignment.
We dont have as much capacity as we need in certain parts of our community, so we have hard choices to make, Susan Evans said.
The new assignment plan drew varying reactions from parents Tuesday.
I feel like whats more important than diversity is stability, said Kari Kristoffersen, a North Raleigh parent. They cant keep changing your base school every year. It seems like every new year is a new assignment plan.
Alison Plowman of Wake Forest said shes happy that the new plan apparently will allow her children to go to the same school.
The rising sibling will get to go with her sibling, she said. Im hopeful that the changes will impact other families as positively as it has us.
Other components in the plan include:
• Requiring rising sixth- and ninth-grade magnet students to apply to attend magnet middle schools or high schools. Theyd have high selection priority. Under the choice plan, magnet students were automatically assigned to the next level of magnets.
• Restoring the practice of setting aside 10 percent of magnet seats to be filled randomly.
• Creating a period, Jan. 7 to 14, when students who arent attending schools assigned for their addresses to request seats there for the next school year if theres space.
• Creating a transfer period, Feb. 18 to March 1, when families can request to attend any school where theres space. Transportation isnt guaranteed.
The school board will hold three public hearings and two work sessions before a final vote scheduled Dec. 11. Martin said he anticipated that few changes would be made.
Theres a lot of consensus that the plan is moving in the right direction, Hill said.
Board members have said they want staff to take their time to develop a more comprehensive plan for 2014-2015.
Goldman raised the specter of mass reassignments coming down the road.
What happens after one year? she said. The community has been up and down like a yo-yo.