Wake schools defend dropping choice plan for student assignments

Schools tell accreditor they had ‘reasonable beliefs’ of problems

khui@newsobserver.comDecember 18, 2012 

  • Responding to the complaint Wake school leaders responded to other allegations in the complaint from the Wake County Taxpayers Association, including: • School officials say a December 2011 meeting between education consultant Michael Alves and the new board members wasn’t illegal but should have been mentioned to the whole board ahead of time. • Board member Susan Evans says she “regrets” having told two board members to “just hush” and “get a life” at a meeting. • Board member Jim Martin, a professor at N.C. State University, denies he acted improperly when he spoke with the N.C. State provost about Wake creating a policy to hold seats open for students whose parents go on sabbaticals.

The Wake County school system is telling an accrediting organization that the school board’s Democratic majority scrapped the choice-based student assignment plan based on “reasonable beliefs that there were demonstrable and substantial problems.”

In its response Tuesday to AdvancED, the Georgia-based group that accredits Wake’s high schools, the district cites a variety of issues, including students not getting schools near where they live and buses running an additional 13,200 miles a day The 28-page report also says that the board majority “reasonably believed” that the choice plan was negatively impacting socioeconomic balance at schools.

Both in June and last week, the board voted 5-4 along party lines to drop the choice plan in favor of returning to tying addresses to specific schools.

“While four Board members believed that the Choice Plan remained viable and that any problems could be successfully addressed, five members came to the conclusion that a fundamental change in approach was needed,” according to the report.

AdvancED is requiring Wake to respond to a September complaint filed by the Wake County Taxpayers Association. The group charged that the Democratic board majority is creating “unnecessary fear and uncertainty” with actions such as dropping the choice plan.

The taxpayers association amended the complaint in October to include the Democratic majority’s firing of Superintendent Tony Tata, who had backed the choice plan. But AdvancED did not ask Wake to respond to that issue.

“This wasn’t really about student assignment,” said Russell Capps, president of the taxpayers association on Tuesday. “The whole thing was about getting rid of Tata. This was a vengeful action against Tata.”

Investigating since 2010

AdvancED has been investigating Wake since a complaint was filed by the state NAACP in 2010 against the board’s former Republican majority. AdvancED initially lowered the accreditation of Wake’s high schools from fully accredited to “warned” status but raised them to “advised” status in January.

Much of the new complaint focuses on the choice plan adopted in October 2011 under the leadership of the Republican majority. The choice plan eliminated the practice of assigning addresses to specific schools in favor of giving families a list of choices to rank from.

The Democratic majority that took office after last year’s elections voted in June to direct staff to come back with an address-based plan for the 2013-14 school year.

The report lists how majority members heard complaints such as students having bus rides of 20 miles or more under the choice plan and how there were long lines to register children because families had to go to Wake’s headquarters in Cary.

The report also attributes at least part of the bus problems at the start of the school year, when thousands of students dealt with buses that came late or not at all, to the choice plan.

Last week, the board voted to implement the new address-based plan for next school year.

“Any specific votes that happen to have broken along party lines reflect good faith differences on important matters of educational policy, not the desire to promote the agenda of any political party,” the response said. “All Board members deny that they have made decisions based on partisanship or that they are beholden to special interests.”

Republican board members were hesitant Tuesday to discuss the report because it was discussed in closed session.

Other allegations

The report describes the new plan as being “temporary and transitional” until a longer-range proposal is developed for the 2014-15 school year.

The taxpayers association, which backed the former Republican majority, lodged other allegations.

For instance, the taxpayers association contends that the majority are under the “extreme influence” of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group that opposed the choice plan. Tata had questioned the decision by new board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner to accept an award in January on behalf of Great Schools.

In its response, Wake points to how the majority initially allowed the choice plan to go forward even though Great Schools had urged it be stopped.

“The Board members who voted to move away from the Choice Plan did so based on the many complaints they received from constituents, the data and information they received from staff, and their sincere and independent judgments that the plan was fundamentally flawed and could not be salvaged,” the report said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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