Midtown Raleigh News

Change in Wake student assignment plan draws reaction

Members of the Wake County school board’s Democratic majority said Wednesday that changes they’ve requested in the student assignment plan will respond to problems with the current plan and restore student diversity as an aim of the assigning process.

But the board’s vote early Wednesday to seek changes in the plan brought strong opposition from the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, as well as from the Republican board members. At a 10-hour work session and board meeting Tuesday and Wednesday, GOP members said the attempt to change the choice-based system adopted in October would create “political chaos.”

The Democratic majority said they were responding to constituents’ demands to fix problems with the new plan, including a host of difficulties connected to the lack of a base address. Under the current plan, known as “controlled choice,” families rank their school choices from a list of schools rather than being automatically assigned based on where they live.

Some real estate agents have objected that the lack of a definite school assignment hurts home sales. Others complained that the system was unfair to newcomers who found the schools in their area already full.

“We have been discussing many of these issues for months,” said board member Christine Kushner, a Democrat who supported the call for changes. “It is time to move forward.”

Democratic board vice chairman Keith Sutton, who drafted the directive approved by the board, said Wednesday, “People have been clamoring for student achievement, stability and proximity. Choice isn’t something that as many people in the community have been clamoring for.”

In a statement Wednesday, Wake Education Partnership president Steve Parrott said the nonprofit group was “extremely disappointed in the decision-making process used by the school board and frustrated by the absence of a collaborative approach.” The partnership worked with Massachusetts education consultant Michael Alves to help implement the current choice plan.

Alves said it’s possible to combine an address-based assignment plan with elements of the choice plan using software that he is leasing to the Wake system. If parents are given a base school that’s overcrowded, the system must be able to provide alternatives, he said.

“Certainly the system is learning to manage choice,” Alves said. “That experience will be helpful in trying to manage a base-related assignment.”

Early Wednesday, the school board’s five-member Democratic majority passed the directive to Superintendent Tony Tata and staff to develop a revised assignment plan for the 2013-14 school year.

“There are issues that absolutely needed to be addressed,” Democratic board member Jim Martin said Wednesday. “They weren’t addressed in the old plan; they aren’t addressed in the current plan. The implication is that everything is stable and happy now – it’s not,”

‘It’s not the intent’

The directive, passed on a 5-4 party line vote at 12:53 a.m. Wednesday, said that a new plan should tie addresses to specific schools while also trying to balance school enrollments by student achievement and socioeconomics.

Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said in a Wednesday email to members that he had tried to dissuade the board from venturing into a new plan before Tuesday’s meeting.

“Based on our research we believe that an address-based approach advocated in the directive will require mandatory assignment to fill schools,” Schmitt wrote.

Sutton said that the Raleigh Chamber and the Wake Education Partnership have a misconception of what the board intends to do. He said they’re trying to develop a new plan that has the best elements of the old plan and the current choice plan by stressing student achievement, proximity and stability.

“It’s not an effort to go back the old plan, “ Sutton said Wednesday. “It’s not the intent.”

Sutton and Hill tried to reassure members that any new plan would not create the dire scenarios Republicans raised of increased busing, frequent reassignment and top-down school assignment. A Republican-led board in 2010 eliminated diversity from the assignment policy in favor of allowing families to choose schools closer to where they live.

But Republican member Deborah Prickett was not convinced. “This is yet another threat of more change,” she said “This is nothing more than social engineering.”

Prickett and other Republican board members had repeatedly pointed during the debate to how the business community had backed the choice plan.

“While I acknowledge that, first of all, the Raleigh Chamber and the Wake Ed Partnership are valuable partners in our community I just wanted to remind Ms. Prickett and the board that we are the elected officials charged with making these important decisions on behalf of the school system,” said Democratic board member Susan Evans.

Redrawing the ‘nodes’

The three-page directive is short on definitions of terms such as providing “a school assignment within a reasonable distance” of each student’s home. The directive also calls for newcomers and those who enter the system from charter or home schools to have “a reasonable degree of predictability” on a school assignment based on their addresses.

One key to that, Martin said, will be a re-evaluation and redrawing of the county’s more than 1,300 attendance “nodes,” or small geographic areas that are used for assignments. Drawn up years ago, the nodes should be revised to reflect current neighborhood patterns so that families who live near each other can attend the same schools.

Parents made thousands of complaints under the previous, diversity-based plan that their children were repeatedly reassigned to meet growth and diversity demands. Work on a revised plan should begin shortly in order for it to be presented to the board in September and in place for the 2013-2014 school year.

Tata has been a vocal critic of the old assignment plan and champion of the choice plan. But at a Wednesday news conference he repeatedly said he’d do what the new board majority has directed.

“We serve at the direction of the board, and the board gave direction, and I’m going follow that direction, and we’re going to get to work,” Tata said.

Republican school board member John Tedesco warned that the turmoil caused by changing assignment plans could hurt the district’s efforts to get voter approval for a possible school construction bond in 2013.

“What they did was add a great degree of concern and uncertainty in the community at a time when we are preparing for a bond issue,” he said.