editorial

Wake school board learns to listen

In a small reassignment, Wake’s school board has been open to parents’ feedback.

December 7, 2012 

These days, almost everyone who has a job is glad for it. The exceptions might include the people whose job it is to sit on the Wake County school board.

They have a thankless task that is, by the way, impossible. They’re charged with figuring out how to assign 150,000 students to schools that in all cases are near the students’ homes, have a solid academic record, have the desired year-round or traditional calendar and have a mix of students that reflects society, not simply the neighborhood.

The complexity of that task is reflected even in modest undertakings. The board just completed three public hearings concerning the reassigning of 1,479 students. It’s a small reassignment by Wake County standards, but every move is a big event to the student and the family affected.

Some parents objected that their children’s reassignments didn’t make sense or were unfair. In some cases, the feedback revealed an unintended glitch. The board listened and made changes where it could.

One parent at Wednesday’s public hearing said the board’s reversal on assigning her neighborhood to a new school was a great relief. “It’s about keeping communities together,” she said. “I cannot thank you enough for doing that.”

Still, there were tense moments both with parents and between board members. It is a time of difficult readjustment. The board’s previous Republican majority had passed a plan for reassignment that let parents choose from a list of schools. The plan also played havoc with school bus routes, was unfair to newcomers and made it nearly impossible to fill new schools.

The current Democratic majority favors returning to a plan in which school assignments are linked to addresses. The board will vote on it Tuesday.

The change will give the board more control over who goes where and ease the filling of new schools. But it also brings back memories of the wholesale reassignments that were needed in response to growth, but were often executed in an autocratic way. That approach brought a backlash against reassignments that ushered in a new Republican majority in 2009.

Now the Democrats are back in charge, but chastened and more inclined to listen and adjust. Still, one parent at Wednesday’s hearing asked for more than even the most accommodating board can provide as it prepares for years when many more students will need to be reassigned.

“I’m pleading with you folks and asking you to use common sense,” the parent said. “What we are asking for is certainty.”

No matter how much common – or even uncommon – sense the board employs, it cannot guarantee certainty in school assignments. As the school system continues to grow by more than 3,000 students a year, attendance zones will and must keep shifting.

Yet it’s encouraging that the board’s members are approaching these changes by listening.

The task of redrawing assignment lines may seem daunting, but the work goes better when the lines of communication are always open.

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