Martinez: Time to split up too-big-to-succeed Wake schools

February 19, 2013 

I don’t think most people realize the Wake County school board rarely discusses or deliberates about education. Attend the meetings or peruse past agendas and you’ll discover meetings are dominated by nuts and bolts talk on student assignment, budget and construction, as well as the political infighting these issues create.

Tuesday’s agenda illustrates my point. Of the 19 non-administrative items (i.e., pledge of allegiance), nine dealt with school construction and design, two with legislative goals and the rest were either budgetary, administrative or laudatory.

There wasn’t a single item about what is being taught, or should be taught, to our children. I doubt board members sought the office in order to evaluate the qualifications of construction managers. But that’s the role they’re playing.

The reality few are willing to confront is this: The Wake County school district has become too big to excel.

At 150,000 students, Wake is the largest school district in the state. Charlotte-Mecklenburg is second at 140,000. The drop-off from there is significant. Guilford, at No. 3, educates 73,000 students. Think about that. North Carolina’s third-largest school district is less than half the size of Wake. Other Triangle districts are minuscule compared with Wake. Durham and Johnston counties each have 33,000, Chapel Hill-Carrboro has 12,129, and Orange County has 7,420.

In fact, Wake’s high school enrollment (43,000) dwarfs the total enrollment of 109 of the state’s 115 public school districts.

Wake schools operating budget is a monster as well. At $1.25 billion, the system’s budget is larger than any of the municipalities it serves. It’s bigger than Raleigh’s ($640 million) and Wake County’s ($941 million). Only Mecklenburg County’s operating budget, at $1.25 billion, is equal to that of Wake schools.

Is it any wonder that the Wake school board rarely has time to deal with education?

Size also begets complexity. Look no further than the job of Wake schools Chief Business Officer David Neter. He drew the short straw and was tasked with reorganizing the transportation department after last fall’s school bus fiasco. If approved, the framework of the reorganization would be in place next fall, but full implementation would take up to two years.

And so it goes.

Frankly, the Wake County commissioners seem to have missed this gigantic elephant in the room. I understand why they want to own the school system’s major capital assets (primarily school buildings), but if I were a commissioner, I’d pull the legislative bill and instead focus on breaking up the school system. I’d start by looking at multiple, autonomous and independent school districts.

The obvious plan would be to split Wake into two school systems of about 75,000 students, leaving both boards more time to focus on education issues rather than on operational issues.

Another option is to determine an optimum system size based on student enrollment and growth potential. For argument’s sake, let’s assume the ideal enrollment is 50,000 students, which is still higher than the state average. Low-growth areas of the county would be apportioned close to that number or larger. High-growth areas would have smaller enrollment, giving them room to grow to the optimum.

The obvious argument against breaking up Wake schools is duplication of effort. But in reality, each school district does things differently based on the needs of its community. For example, my home county, Orange, has two school districts. Each has very different education missions and styles. More importantly, each has a board that is very responsive to its distinct constituents. From time to time, the idea of merging the districts is floated. It’s been defeated every time because the constituents of each district cherish their unique nature.

Splitting up Wake County schools may make student assignment look like a cake walk. But the system’s unwieldy size is only adding to the district’s problems and robbing it of time to pursue the educational innovation Wake was once known for.

Without this examination, Wake County will continue to be too big to succeed.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez ( is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and

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