Garner Cleveland Record

Wake school board changing student-assignment policy

The Wake County school board on Tuesday took the first steps toward trying to ensure again that schools have diverse enrollments, but members said they’re not proposing to force children to attend schools far from where they live.

In a 7-1 vote, the board gave preliminary approval to a revised student-assignment policy that seeks to minimize high concentrations of low-performing students and students from low-income families at each school.

But board members also noted that the policy says students should be assigned to a school within a reasonable distance of their homes and should be given an opportunity to stay at the schools they attend.

“We’re not going back to where we’re just going to yank kids from here and move them to there to balance out numbers,” said board member Tom Benton, a Democrat.

At schools that can’t be balanced by means of student assignment, board members said, the system will make use of a new Office of Equity and Diversity. The office is included in an $8.3 million funding increase that the board voted Tuesday to request from county commissioners.

Joe Bryan, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said Tuesday that an $8.3 million increase was a “reasonable request” that he thought commissioners could approve.

Diversity has been one of the most contentious topics for decades in the state’s largest school system. Beginning in the 1970s, the system tried to keep schools from becoming racially unbalanced. In the 2000s, the student-assignment policy included a goal of trying to limit any school from having too many low-income children. In 2010, the former Republican school board majority eliminated that provision in favor of a choice-based plan.

The Democratic-backed board majority that took office in 2011 raised concerns that schools had been resegregating under Republican rule. The new policy says that assignment plans “will be developed by balancing, to the extent reasonable,” factors such as student achievement, stability, proximity and operational efficiency.

But Republican board member Deborah Prickett charged that the policy changes would force low-income children to bear the brunt of reassignment. Prickett was the lone vote against the policy change Tuesday. Fellow GOP board member John Tedesco was absent.

“Who is going to decide which students are going to stay in a school and which students are going to move from a school?” Prickett said. “Someone has to make these choices. Now I would prefer it to be the parents.”

Democratic board member Jim Martin denied that the panel planned to shift students out of their neighborhoods, pointing to the proximity provision in the policy. The policy says assignment plans should allow students to attend schools in the immediate vicinity of their homes and minimize splitting of neighborhoods.

The board will hold the final vote on the policy changes May 21.

Prickett was also critical of the board majority directing staff to put $218,474 in the budget to create the new diversity office. A new assistant superintendent, to be hired by the new superintendent, will lead the office.

Benton argued the new position was needed to help ensure students are getting equitable resources. “If we’re serious about equity issues in the system, and there are many, many equity issues, I think we’ve got to put some money where our talk is and have somebody that will help bring focus to this issue,” he said.