Debating whether to make 2014-15 Wake County student assignment changes

Posted by T. Keung Hui on November 6, 2013 

Should the Wake County school board make no changes to school assignments for the 2014-15 school year or make a few “tweaks” to the plan?

As noted in today’s article, everyone agrees that the current assignment plan, based on the lines used in the 2011-12 school year, have holes that need to be addressed. The question is whether it can wait a year or not.

Staff’s recommendation is to make no changes for next school year to provide stability to families. But some school board members say that a few changes should be made now, such as addressing assignments that are causing calendar mismatches for families.

During Tuesday’s board work session, Laura Evans, senior director of student assignment, first went over the proposed assignment time table. She said they want to move the base declaration period to Dec. 13-20. That’s the period when students not going to their base school can request their base for the next school year.

In the past, Evans said the base declaration because was done in early January. She said they want to move it up to before the holidays so that they can go ahead and recommend in January which schools should be capped for the 2014-15 school year.

Evans then pointed to the year-round utilization study that the board authorized her to work on in June. She said they determined that 16 year-round schools are below 85 percent of capacity based on the current year and the past three years.

As part of the review, Evans said they also looked at the growth in the base of those schools, the growth in the planning areas they’re in, the number of new seats coming online and equitable distribution of resources on all the tracks.

Evans said the data was shared with the superintendent’s leadership team.

Evans said they concluded they wouldn’t recommend any calendar changes for the 2014-15 school year but would conduct the same review again as part of the plan for filling the new schools in the new construction program.

As for dealing with crowded schools, Evan said staff is recommending that the tools that would be used are more mobiles and modulars, limiting the number of non-base students at some schools and enrollment caps.

For under-utilized schools, Evans said they will try to meet it through the allotment process. But she said they’ll revisit their base attendance areas as they move forward with the new construction program.

Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore explained to board members that for the past few years they’ve had a small pot of funds to help fund under-utilized schools above their funding formula. Funding is based on enrollment so that typically means schools lose positions when they’re under-enrolled.

Chief Business David Neter said that even during the economic downturn they’ve had enough money to meet the needs of those under-utilized schools. He said they’re not anticipating it to be a problem for next year.

Neter also said that funding exists for relocating mobiles. Assistant Superintendent Joe Desormeaux said they had set the money aside to move trailers knowing they’d need to until the new schools come online.

School board member Jim Martin said that conflicted with what he heard from teachers at Monday’s town hall meeting at West Lake Middle School about lack of resources. He said he heard from teachers complaining about their schools being hurt by year-round schools double tracking track 4 to get students. He said that also creates feeder problems at year-round middle schools.

Martin said that while he respects stability and calendar choice, they have to tackle some of these other assignment issues.

Evans said they’re helping year-round elementary school principals address the issue by capping certain tracks. She said that will help solve flow problems into middle schools.

Evans said that while they could make assignment recommendations for 2014-15 that would improve on meeting the goals in the assignment policy, they decided not to considering there are no new schools opening with a base.

“We felt like the goal of stability should take precedence for the 14-15 school year,” Evans said, adding that as they work on plans for the new schools they can improve upon meeting the four pillars in the assignment policy.

Staff asked for board reaction.

School board member Susan Evans said she understands the rational for not wanting comprehensive changes for 14-15. But she asked if there was any way to consider “small tweaks” such as fixing calendar mismatches.

Susan Evans cited the example of how Baucom Elementary students have Lufkin Road Middle as their feeder instead of Apex Middle. She asked about flip-flopping them. She added that she had told Baucom parents that they’d address the situation for 14-15.

Laura Evans responded that it would be disruptive because changing Baucom would impact others who are assigned to Apex Middle, dominoing the situation.

Susan Evans complained it was a “kind of ass backwards” situation.

Laura Evans said that calendar mismatches around the county are something that’s on the list to look at in the comprehensive plan.

Susan Evans asked if she could confidently communicate to Baucom parents that that their transfer requests would be approved. Laura Evans answered yes if they applied during the early transfer period.

School board Chairman Keith Sutton asked if they’re looking at any nodes that need some tweaking.

Laura Evans said it’s a “high priority” to get students who live right around a school assigned there. She said that as they look to fill the 16 new schools in the construction program they’ll look at the existing schools too.

Neter said he would paraphrase staff’s thinking.

“Everyone around the table recognizes there are mismatches and tweaks that need to be made,” Neter said. “But those changes aren’t of such a critical nature that they need to be done now.”

Neter said they can do a comprehensive review while providing additional stability for another year.

But Martin said that while had agreed to use the 11-12 maps for this school year, he wasn’t happy with all the features of those maps. While Martin said he recognized they can’t make major changes, he said he had though staff would begin working on changes once the assignment policy was modified in May.

As an example, Martin pointed to how some schools have 5 percent of their students on subsidized lunches and others at 85 percent.

"There are some places that we really need to pay attention to all of these factors,” Martin said. “I’m frustrated."

Martin said some schools “got trapped” by the 2011-12 maps. He said Athens Drive High got hurt during the choice plan because people wanted to leave due to “perceived issues.”

“It’s frustrating when we’ve got these real issues that needs attention,” Martin said.

School board member John Tedesco said he completely agreed with Martin that some changes should be made now. He said that while staff might deem some things not critical, they are to families who are affected. For instance, he said misaligned calendars impact family lifestyles.

“There are a small handful of tweaks that this board can make,” said Tedesco, who attended his final board meeting before his term expires. “I’m not going to be here but you can make them.”

While it’s the staff’s recommendation, Tedesco pointed out that it’s the board’s choice whether to make changes.

“You’re the board; you have to advocate for the community,” Tedesco said. “If you decide in the next two or three months you want to make a few tweaks, you can make them.”

Tedesco said waiting another year won’t help the families who are affected next year.

But school board member Bill Fletcher noted how he had sat through 12 years of assignment plans, public hearings and work sessions.

“I am respectful of the concerns I’ve heard my colleagues make,” Fletcher said. “But I’m so glad that staff has made this recommendation. It will allow us to focus on much more important issues from a district perspective."

Fletcher said the time the board would spend on reassignment can be focused on other areas such as academic achievement.

“Most of our community would be happy to have a respite from the annual student assignment clamor,” Fletcher said.

With time running out, Desormeaux said he wanted to brief the board on plans for moving modulars. He said staff wanted to get a start on it now because it takes time to get them in place.

Desormeaux said they want to place modulars at Cedar Fork Elementary School and Highcroft Drive Elementary School. Both actions would take away some of the play field space.

School board member Deborah Prickett, attending her last meeting, asked why Cedar Fork was getting modulars when it was already capped.

Desormeaux said it’s the only traditional-calendar option in the area and that placing modulars is “the best of a bad option."

Even if the recommendation is to not change the plan, it would still require an official board vote that will be requested Dec. 3. While nothing formal was done at the work session, Susan Evans said she can support going ahead with the staff recommendation.

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