Wake may cap schools to reduce reassignments

Wake County change would affect mostly newcomers

khui@newsobserver.comNovember 19, 2012 

  • How capping works Wake County school assignment staff have recommended that enrollment be capped at 12 schools. If any of those schools hit a certain number of students, they will no longer enroll new students for the rest of this school year. Families who moved in before the cap date or who purchased their home before then would not be subject to the restriction. Newcomers would be given three overflow schools to pick from for this school year. When the enrollment drops below the cap figure in their regular school, students will be allowed to return. School staff have also identified 22 schools where an enrollment cap will be set, but they will still have the ability to take new students from the attendance area. In the spring, school staff will recommend whether all 34 schools should have the strictest enrollment cap for the 2013-14 school year. View the assignment proposal The enrollment caps are part of a draft 2013-14 student assignment plan that would move 1,479 students to different schools next year. Go to www.wcpss.net/blog/2012/11/student-assignment-plan-proposal-for-2013-14 to view the plan, provide comments and sign up to speak at three public hearings.

Newcomers who buy a home in some of Wake County’s most desirable neighborhoods may encounter an unexpected drawback this school year – the nearest schools have no room for their children.

That could be the effect of much broader use of enrollment “caps” on schools that are beyond their capacity. It’s an attempt to shift the burden on dealing with growth onto newcomers instead of reassigning existing families to less crowded schools.

The capping covers only 12 schools, but it could be a harbinger of further enrollment restrictions as growth continues to press the limits of schools in popular neighborhoods at a time when not enough new schools are being built.

The trend is worrisome to the real-estate industry, which often touts access to a good school as part of a home’s value. Now buyers of homes in zones where the local school is capped will be left in a kind of attendance limbo. They’ll be redirected to other schools that have more space.

“Everybody seems to be waiting to buy to find out what’s going to happen,” said Heather Rand, a Raleigh real-estate agent. “They don’t have any confidence in where they’re going to buy.”

Rand is concerned that the use of enrollment caps could delay the sale of a home she’s trying to sell near Lacy Elementary School in Raleigh, one of the schools on the district’s list for enrollment restrictions.

Historically, as long as you lived within a school’s attendance area you were able to attend no matter how crowded the school became. In 1997, Wake began occasionally capping overcrowded schools, but the new assignment plan presented last week represents the most aggressive use of capping ever in the state’s largest school system.

The caps are part of a plan that restores the practice of tying every address to a specific school. It will replace the choice-based plan used earlier this school year. The choice plan allowed residents across Wake County to pick from a list of several schools.

Some real-estate agents had complained that providing the choice confused families and made it harder to sell homes because buyers could not know with certainty where their children would attend school.

12 ‘full cap’ schools

Under the new assignment plan, Wake has identified 12 crowded schools that if they reach a specific enrollment will stop taking new students the rest of the school year. Newcomers would instead be given three other schools to choose from.

Four of the 12 “full cap” schools – Conn, Lacy and Wiley elementary schools in Raleigh and Mills Park Elementary in Cary – have already hit their target enrollment and would institute the cap on Dec. 12, the day after which the school board is scheduled to vote on the assignment plan.

“We proposed, rather than any reassignment, keep everybody in place that’s there and it’s the new students, I’m sorry we can’t fit you in until we build another school,” said Laura Evans, senior director of growth and planning.

An additional 22 schools are recommended for a “partial cap” so they’d only enroll new students who live in their attendance area.

Some of these 22 schools could be added to the full cap list if there’s a surge in new enrollment from students who live in the attendance area.

In the spring, school assignment staff will recommend to the school board which schools should have full enrollment restrictions for the 2013-14 school year.

Capping enrollment could become more common to steer students toward schools that have space. Even with slower growth this year, Wake schools still added more than 2,800 students. There’s no money in the budget to open any new schools after 2015.

Ellis Hankins, a parent at Lacy Elementary, said the school doesn’t seem to be more crowded than in the past. But Hankins, Lacy’s representative to a school board advisory council, said he can understand why caps are on the table.

“Wake County has had growth in the past,” Hankins said. “It’s slowed down but we can expect it will pick back up again. It’s going to be a challenge, but it will be resolved.”

Some school board members say capping enrollment is preferable to reassigning students.

“It’s a case of necessity,” said board member Chris Malone. “If you don’t have the space, you don’t have the space.”

Board member Susan Evans echoed the message.

“We have to choose the lesser of the evils and it seems like the solution being proposed would affect the smallest amount of people,” she said.

The most vocal critic of the capping proposal is board member Debra Goldman, who complained that the caps would force newcomers “to pick the least bad of your three options.”

Capping poses challenges for real-estate agents and prospective home buyers.

Rand, the real-estate agent, is trying to sell a house about a mile from Lacy Elementary School. Lacy is at the corner of Lake Boone Trail and Ridge Road inside the Raleigh Beltline.

Her prospective buyers want to send their kids to the popular school, but they’re not sure if the new school assignment plan will allow that to happen. As the school board debates the plan, Rand figures the house will stay on the market.

“The question is who’s going to be capped and how?” Rand said.

Such caps can give pause to potential new residents, according to Scott Hoyt, a western Cary real-estate agent. An interested homebuyer’s response to the idea “usually comes in the form of a question: ‘How long is this going to go on for?’” he said. “And the answer to that is, ‘Who knows, there’s no consistency.’”

But Lynn Stellings, a Raleigh real-estate agent who spoke out against the choice plan at school board meetings, said the caps are needed around schools that just don’t have enough space for newcomers. But Stellings said fewer families will be affected by capping than the choice plan.

“They will have to have them the coming year,” she said about the caps. “It’s not perfect.”

David Worters, a Raleigh real-estate agent, said it’s difficult to determine the impact of the capping proposal. But he said the new plan is still superior to the choice plan that he had criticized at school board meetings.

“The anxiety level that we were hearing, it all started subsiding when the conversation returned to having an address-based plan,” he said

Staff writer Andrew Kenney contributed to this report.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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