Wake County ending Renaissance Schools program

Posted by T. Keung Hui on June 15, 2014 

Wake County’s Renaissance Schools program started with a heavily publicized bang in 2011 but is ending this month with a whimper.

As noted in today’s article, the Wake County school system is discontinuing the Renaissance Program at the end of the school year, opting not to use local dollars to replace the federal Race to the Top grant funds that provided extra resources to five schools. The program was heavily promoted by the former Republican board majority and former Superintendent Tony Tata but has encountered ambivalence from the current Democratic board majority.

School leaders are citing the end of the grant dollars and a decision to move in a new direction to help high-needs schools. But some program supporters question whether the decision was politically motivated because the Renaissance Program uses performance pay – a method not backed by the Democratic board majority.

“It’s sad that the kids are in the middle of a political fight,” said former school board member John Tedesco, who was one of the most outspoken advocates of the Renaissance program.

Over the past three school years, the district put millions of dollars into Barwell, Brentwood, Creech Road, Walnut Creek and Wilburn elementary schools for performance bonuses, hiring bonuses, six extra teachers per school, new technology and staff development.

As this handout shows, Wake has handed out $1.48 million in signing bonuses to the five schools. Wake has also issued $835,786 in performance bonuses using a combination of Race to the Top and TAP grants.

Click here and here for handouts explaining how the bonuses were awarded.

But the fate of the program arguably changed after the 2011 election flipped control of the school board.

Tata’s support for performance pay put him at odds with the new majority. Click here for a heated discussion that took place in May 2012 as board members debated Tata’s efforts to put performance pay into the district’s strategic plan.

Performance pay did make it into the strategic plan after wording changes were made to satisfy board members. That blog post also offers an example of how promotion of the academic gains by the Renaissance Schools drew criticism from some board members.

That strategic plan is being tossed in favor of a new one begin developed right now.

After Tata was fired, then-board chairman Kevin Hill helped justify the decision by saying “most of this past spring and summer, the board has been embroiled in putting out fires and debates over an assignment plan, merit pay, leadership academies and bus routes,”

More recently, school board leaders in March held a news conference in which they criticized using performance pay for teachers.

School board member Keith Sutton said he can see a place for using bonuses in Wake. But he said it’s too divisive an issue with many of his colleagues.

“Given the varying opinions on performance bonuses and signing bonuses, I’m not sure that we could continue to do it both financially and philosophically,” Sutton said of continuing the Renaissance program.

School board chairwoman Christine Kushner said the program is being dropped simply because the grant money has expired.

Tedesco said that argument is just an excuse. He points to how Wake funds magnet schools after federal magnet grants run out. Tedesco said he doesn‘t begrudge the magnet schools their funding, but “if they can put millions and millions into magnet schools, there’s no reason why they can’t provide some for our most vulnerable schools.”

“Their commitment to providing diverse demographics in schools in strong,” Tedesco said of the current board. “Their commitment to providing resources for our most vulnerable students isn’t as strong.”

One question going forward is what, if anything, will be done to help the soon-to-be formed Renaissance schools. Wake was using the federal grant to provide $1.3 million a year of extra teachers that the schools used for things such as reducing class sizes and providing additional intervention support.

Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance, said the Renaissance schools might receive some of the $1.75 million that the district wants to set aside in a new fund for high-poverty schools. But no determination has been made yet on which schools will get the funds. Plus, school board members warned Thursday that it might not be possible to fund items in the expansion budget such as the extra aid for high-needs schools because of potential state budget cuts.

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