Garner Cleveland Record

Wake school board debates whether to maintain student assignments

Faced with a recommendation to keep student assignment constant for next year, some Wake County school board members argued Tuesday that small changes should be made to the plan.

Without the need to move students to fill new schools next year, school administrators said they wanted to provide families some stability by not making any assignment changes for the 2014-15 school year. Some board members said they were pleased, while others argued that some issues – such as the situation of families whose children attend schools on different calendars – should be fixed now.

“There are a small handful of tweaks that this board can make,” school board member John Tedesco said. “I’m not going to be here, but I’m hoping you can make them.”

Tuesday marked the final regular board meeting for Tedesco, who didn’t run for re-election, and Deborah Prickett, who lost her re-election bid last month. In his farewell remarks, Tedesco noted positive accomplishments during the past four years, including the stability of assignments.

School board member Bill Fletcher said that he welcomed the staff’s recommendation because it will allow the board to focus on issues such as student achievement instead of assignment.

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

Administrators want the board to make a final decision Dec. 3.

A history of reassignment

Reassignment has been one of the most contentious issues in the fast-growing school system, the largest in the state with more than 153,000 students. In past years, the system reassigned more than 10,000 students schools, ease crowding at existing schools and promote diverse student enrollments.

Only one new school is opening next year – a high school that will focus on teaching job skills and will be filled only by students who apply.

Anger over reassignment has led to changes in the district’s assignment policy, including putting stability and proximity as priorities, while also keeping an emphasis on trying to keep schools from having too many low-income and low-achieving students.

“We felt like the goal of stability should take precedence for the ‘14-’15 plan,” Laura Evans, senior director of student assignment, told board members.

More trailers possible

Administrators said they’d adjust next school year at the crowded schools by placing enrollment limits on the number of students each school can take and/or placing additional classroom trailer units. Underenrolled schools would get more money than they’d normally receive because funding is traditionally based on the size of each school’s enrollment.

But during discussion of the staff proposal, board members began to ask about “tweaks” that some areas have requested. Some families have complained that they’re not attending the schools they live near, or that they’re assigned to both year-round and traditional-calendar schools.

Evans said they’d perform a comprehensive look at school assignments as they look to fill the 16 new schools that will be funded from the $810 million school construction bond issue approved by voters last month. She said planners would examine the assignments at existing schools as well, to have them fit better with the goals of the assignment policy.

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

Tedesco, Martin speak for tweaks

But school board member Jim Martin said that some changes can’t wait. He said that while he recognizes that they can’t make major changes for next year, they can explore why some school only have five percent of their students receiving federally subsidized lunches, while others have 85 percent.

Martin said school assignment staff should have expected to make changes when the board modified the assignment policy in May.

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

While staff might not deem some issues critical now, they are for the families who want changes, Tedesco said. For instance, he said that families’ lifestyles are affected by mismatched school calendars.

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