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Wake superintendent: Strong home sales show student assignment plan not hurting housing market

Wake County schools Superintendent Tony Tata pointed Friday to favorable first-quarter home sales to challenge arguments that the new choice-based student assignment plan is driving potential homebuyers away from the county.

Some real estate agents and other critics of the new plan have charged that newcomers are being scared away from Wake because addresses are no longer assigned to specific schools.

But Tata, during a news conference, pointed to this month’s Triangle Area Residential Realty Report that shows Wake County’s home sales, closings, showings and market share were up for the first quarter of 2012 compared to the same time last year under the old assignment plan.

Tata cited a small sampling of data that, most economists and housing experts agree, is more an indication of how bad the housing market was a year ago.

“In January, February and March when you had people saying this assignment plan was causing people to walk away from Wake County, what we saw was exactly the opposite,” Tata said. “The data is showing that Wake County is performing very strongly in the real estate market, not only in the first quarter but relative to our neighbors. I think that’s relevant to the discussion that has been ongoing.”

Under Wake’s new plan for the 2012-13 school year, families rank where they’d like to attend from a list of choices. The plan replaces a prior plan that tied addresses to specific schools and tried to promote socioeconomic diversity by balancing the percentages of low-income students at schools.

Home sales in Wake County increased 21 percent in the first quarter compared to the same period last year, the realty report said. Pending sales were up 24 percent, and showings increased 12 percent.

But some increase in sales activity was expected in the first quarter. Many think a better measure of the strength of the housing recovery will come later this year when the sales numbers are benchmarked against numbers that weren’t as heavily influenced by past federal tax credits.

Tata’s arguments Friday weren’t convincing David Worters and Lynn Stellings. Both Raleigh real estate agents had urged the school board on May 1 to modify the assignment plan to provide base schools so families would know where they’ll attend when they move into the district.

“We ought to be in the business of doing everything we can to recruit the best and brightest to come to Wake County,” Worters said. “Instead, the plan says to newcomers, ‘your children’s education is our lowest priority.’ ”

A reach?

Stellings said Tata “is reaching,” because home sales are also up in the other Triangle counties this year. Home sales were up 20 percent in the first quarter in the Triangle.

“The economy is improving,” Stellings said. “Everyone knows that home sales are going up. I don’t see how that relates to relocating families who are opting for private schools or Chapel Hill or Johnston County.”

Real estate agents’ concerns are noted in the Triangle Area Residential Realty Report, which says that “for the first time, practitioners are dealing with buyers who are not selecting Wake due to perceived uncertainty about the choice-based plan.” The report says its goal “is to be a fact-based voice of reason, not an emotional response based upon the experiences of a small sample set.”

The report found that Wake accounted for 54.9 percent of the Triangle’s home sales during the first quarter of 2012, up from 52.3 percent during the same period in 2011.

“Indirectly, given the large percentage of parents with school age children and the favorable Wake County metrics, it does not appear the market has reacted adversely,” according to the report.

Worters said he’s happy that housing sales remain strong. But he cautioned against reading too much into three months of data. He said real estate agents are forced on a regular basis to tell prospective Wake homebuyers they don’t know where their children will go to school.

“My concern is that the words of the superintendent are too dismissive,” Worters said. “Anecdotes are all we really have now, but we have a lot of them.”

Student notices Tuesday

The next stage in the assignment plan will come Tuesday, when current students will get notices sent home with them that will show their 2012-13 school assignment. Letters will be mailed to newcomers.

Tata said the assignments on the May 15 letters could still change because officials will place some of the 5,200 students still on waitlists. Families who didn’t their first choice were put on a waitlist unless they requested to be removed.

Starting Tuesday and running through June 1, families who don’t like their assignment for this fall can file a transfer request. Transfers that are rejected by staff can be appealed to the school board.

“Transfers will be granted on a limited basis related to hardship,” Tata said.

In what Tata called a related issue to the assignment plan, he announced that Wake launched Friday an online survey in English and Spanish for parents to give their vision of the magnet school program. Wake is conducting a review that could result in some existing magnet schools losing their programs for the 2013-14 school year and some schools being magnetized.

The current magnet program dates to 1982, when many schools inside the Raleigh Beltline were given special programs such as electives and enhanced arts offerings to entice applicants from the suburbs. The goal of the program has been to integrate schools, to fill the downtown Raleigh schools, to ease crowding at suburban schools and to provide unique educational opportunities to students.

At the request of school board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton, whose Southeast Raleigh district contains many magnet schools, the review will look at student achievement in the magnet school program. Tata said a lot of people express surprise that student achievement isn’t one of the official objectives of the magnet program.

“When you look at achievement gaps in magnet schools, they’re pretty stark,” Tata said. “We’ve got to confront reality head on here and ask what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and where do we need to do it.”

Staff writer David Bracken contributed to this report.

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