Tend to Wake County schools

June 8, 2013 

Wake County’s public schools got a report card last Sunday. It said the system, once a star pupil, is slipping and in need of close attention before the slip becomes a serious slide from the ranks of the top public school systems.

The report written by The News & Observer’s veteran schools reporter T. Keung Hui took a broad look at the system through measures such as class size, teacher salaries and per-pupil spending.

The results were compared to two similar county systems outside Washington, D.C. Fairfax County, Va., Montgomery County, Md. and, in the Atlanta metro area, Gwinnett County, Ga., along with Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Wake held its own in most comparisons, but what really matters is what the numbers say about how Wake stacks up against what it’s perceived to be and wants to be. That’s where the worry is.

Good reputation

Wake’s public school system has something priceless and, if lost, hard to recover – a good reputation. It earned it through a strong investment in quality school buildings and well-trained teachers. That happened thanks to dedicated leaders on the school board and in the school system over several decades.

The strength of that reputation has been apparent during Wake’s search for a new superintendent. Ann Clark, one of three finalists for the job, said Wake ranks above her home district in Charlotte, the second largest district in North Carolina behind Wake.

“You are the best district, the highest performing district in the state of North Carolina,” she said at a community forum in Raleigh.

Such praise has become familiar in Wake. It’s also in danger of coming to an end. The rest of the state has caught up with Wake’s once impressive 80 percent graduation rate. Wake’s spending per student ($7,880) has dropped 5.3 percent since the 2008-09 school year. It’s average teacher salary ($46,245) is just slightly better than the state average and $26,000 below the average in Montgomery County, Md. Class sizes are growing.

Cuts, charters

Meanwhile, Republicans in the state legislature are cutting funding for education and siphoning off students and funding for traditional public schools with plans for more charter schools and vouchers for private schools. Wake could see a dozen new charters in the next few years.

Republicans who control the Wake County Board of Commissioners are taking a tough line on more funds for the growing district. Wake, with 150,000 students, is the 16th largest district in the nation and is growing by 3,000 students a year.

Commissioners are compounding the system’s challenges by seeking changes in state law that would give commissioners control over school construction, a function the school system has carried off well in building dozens of new schools during Wake’s roaring growth period. It has plans for 16 more.

Amid the funding cuts, the growth pressures and the friction between the school board and the commissioners, the school system must adjust to a new superintendent and prepare to sell taxpayers on a proposed $810 million school bond that could go before voters on Oct. 8.

A must-pass

If the bond fails, the fissures already appearing in Wake’s school system will become cracks. That could lead to more affluent parents rejecting the system for private and charter schools.

This is a tense and crucial time for Wake schools. The school board must choose the right leader and find a way to protect the quality of Wake schools against tightfisted and meddlesome county commissioners. But ultimately the standards of Wake’s public schools are the responsibility of those who pay for them.

The business community and homeowners must commit to excellence by funding it. Otherwise, Wake County will lose its reputation for top schools and with it the magnet that has drawn so many to come to Wake County to live and to learn.

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