Year-round schools were the most controversial part of the last Wake County school-construction bond referendum and will likely be just as contentious in the proposal that could go before voters in late 2013.
Wake County school board members and county commissioners are facing a decision on the role that year-round schools should play in future school construction. While greater use of year-round schools could reduce the dollar amount of the next bond request , the calendar’s lack of appeal for many parents nearly caused the last referendum in 2006 to be rejected by voters.
The school construction debate comes as a pair of recent studies looking at Wake’s year-round program found no overall academic benefit for students using that calendar. But the studies also found that the year-round calendar can partially offset the negative academic impact of attending a crowded school.
The leaders of both boards agreed earlier this month to add calendar issues to the list of topics that the full boards will discuss at upcoming joint meetings to develop a bond issue.
“We’re going to discuss calendar and capacity, “ said Keith Sutton, chairman of the school board. “I’m not necessarily talking about year-round.”
Most of Wake County’s 50 year-round schools use what’s called a multi-track calendar. Students are divided into four groups, called tracks, which have their own schedules. Three tracks are in class and one is on break nearly every weekday, theoretically increasing capacity by up to 33 percent.
Year-round got boost in 2006
In 2006, school board members worried that voters would reject a bond referendum of more than $1 billion. After consulting with commissioners, the board reduced the bond issue to $970 million by significantly expanding the number of year-round schools to built with bond money.
The board agreed to convert 22 schools to a year-round calendar for the 2007-08 school year and to open all new elementary and middle schools on that calendar. Parents at the schools facing conversion fought the referendum, which only passed with 53 percent of the vote.
Parents filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court that Wake schools ultimately won, giving the county the right to assign students to year-round schools without parental consent. But the school board has been wary of using this power.
“I don’t think anybody at this table likes mandatory year-round schools,” school board member Jim Martin said.
Parents oppose the year-round calendar for a variety of reasons, with one of the most frequent objections being that it doesn’t fit their family’s lifestyle. The long summer break for traditional-calendar schools is replaced with shorter but more frequent breaks in the year-round calendar.
Another frequent complaint is about the lack of any high schools on a multi-track calendar. That means families may have children on split schedule, with few common break days.
Katy Rouse, an economics professor at Elon University, looked at Wake’s year-round schools, focusing on the first two years after conversion. Rouse co-authored two studies on the results which were published in the November issue of the American Economic Journal and the October issue of Economics of Education Review.
Rouse wrote that Wake’s test results showed that year-round schooling had no impact on the average student’s scores. The study also found no evidence year-round schooling benefitted any racial subgroup. Some advocates of year-round schools have contended that this calendar would be better academically for low-income students because they wouldn’t experience learning loss from a long summer break.
But Rouse’s research also found that there was a negative impact on reading achievement in attending a severely crowded Wake school. Her research found that the year-round calendar did have a positive impact on reading achievement in crowded schools.
“It at least effectively offset part of the crowding,” Rouse said of the year-round calendar. “It at least doesn’t harm academically.”
But Rouse, who until recently lived in Cary, said she’s aware of the other problems that the year-round calendar can pose for families.
Expected growth boom waned
Wake expanded the number of year-round schools because of the expectation that growth, which had reached more than 7,500 students a year by the middle of last decade, would continue at a record rate. But the recession sharply slowed down growth. Now some of the converted schools hold fewer students than they did when on the traditional calendar.
Over the past two years, the school board has converted some year-round schools back to a traditional calendar.
With growth now at around 3,000 students a year, leaders of the state’s largest school district want to put a bond referendum on the ballot in Fall 2013.
At a school board meeting Dec. 4, Martin put the blame for mandatory year-round schools on county commissioners. He went on to say that the school board wants to build only traditional-calendar schools with proceeds from the next bond.
“To the public, we hear you. We understand,” Martin said. “We agree and we’re going to need to work with the county commissioners to set forward a plan to make sure the schools we build are traditional schools and not year-round.”
Martin’s statements have drawn complaints from commissioners who say the 2006 decision on year-rounds was jointly made by both boards.
County Commissioner Tony Gurley said cutting back on year-round schools is a tradeoff that would result in needing a larger bond issue.
“If (Martin) thinks he can sell to the public a $2 billion bond, I will be the first person to vote for it to be on the ballot,” Gurley said. “I just don’t think the public will buy that.”