Midtown Raleigh News

Wake County schools’ new assignment policy in peril

Members of the Wake County school board’s Democratic majority made clear Tuesday their intent to return the 150,000-student system to a diversity-based student assignment plan, as well as re-establishing the connection of student addresses to specific schools.

In a long, contentious meeting, Republican members voiced strenuous objections to asking the school administration to discard the new choice-based plan after only one year.

A directive on the board’s agenda called for Superintendent Tony Tata and staff to modify the choice plan to an address-based plan beginning in 2013. In addition, the directive calls for a three-year plan that will take diversity into consideration by setting achievement and socioeconomic targets. The plan should also take proximity and stability into consideration, as does the plan currently in effect, the directive says.

The item, which was not voted on at press time, was placed on the agenda by board chairman Kevin Hill and vice chairman Keith Sutton.

It took a series of votes and disagreements even to keep the directive on the board agenda, as Republican members complained they had little information about it and it should have gone through the board’s policy committee first.

Hill, who was re-elected chairman on Tuesday, said they needed to act now to be able to have it in place for the 2013-14 school year.

“The directive is to get the discussion on the table,” Hill said. “We’ve been told that if we’re going to have to have changes, we have to do it now.”

But some speakers told the board, which has had a Democratic majority since November, that changing assignment plans again would bring turmoil to the community.

“I want to say that this would be a huge mistake to change this plan or call for the development of a new plan,” North Raleigh resident and former school board candidate Jennifer Mansfield said. “If you really wanted to pull the plug on this thing, you should have done it the first thing in December. To do this now is just playing with people.”

Raleigh resident Louis Wooten said he applauded the board’s decision to re-examine the assignment plan. Making changes will not be politically popular, Wooten said, but could prevent some unwanted consequences.

“I think (the student assignment plan) will over time create high concentrations of children for whom education is their only ticket out,” he said.

Until the election of a Republican-based board in 2009, Wake had pursued a policy of keeping schools balanced on the basis of students’ economic background. The GOP-led board developed a choice-based system that put a premium on proximity and stability. When the board majority switched to Democratic in 2011, members continued along the choice-based plan established by the GOP, saying there was too little time to make significant changes for the 2012-13 school year.

Under the choice plan, families rank their preferences from a list of available schools, instead of being assigned to a specific school based on where they live. Supporters of the choice plan said it would end the fears of reassignments, where thousands of students were moved between schools each year in the past, by letting families know ahead of time which schools their children will attend through high school.

‘Learn from my own mistakes’

Critics of the choice plan included some familiar constituencies at board meetings: real estate interests who say the lack of an address-based system hurts sales; inside the Raleigh Beltline residents who weren’t able to get a nearby school assignment; and newcomers to the Wake public schools , who are put at the bottom of the choice process.

“If I take a new ship to sea, I am going to go to sea a number of times. It’s called a shakedown cruise,” said Peter Rumsey, a downtown real-estate agent. “You have an opportunity, working with both sides of the room, to set an example for the rest of the country.”

Those who favored keeping the brand-new choice plan said it has its faults, but should be given a chance. Some of the more than two dozen speakers grew emotional as they talked of the effects of a series of changed policies on families and children.

“Making a major change now dishonors and disrespects every citizen in Wake County who has invested themselves in this plan,” North Raleigh parent Rhonda Curtright said in support of the choice plan.

Republican board member John Tedesco joined a party-line vote against taking up the directive, while objecting to what he said was its hasty introduction. However, he conceded implicitly that the action resembled the GOP-led board’s wholesale changes in the assignment policy when they took office in 2009.

“I would caution you as my fellow colleagues not to follow the same path,” Tedesco said.

“I’ll put it out there – learn from my own mistakes.”