Wake County

Wheeler: School assignment mystery may hurt us

Pitiful. Disturbing. Confusing and upsetting.

That's how three 30-year Wake County real estate veterans describe the new school assignment plan that forces them - and those selling their homes - to answer prospective buyers with "I have no idea" when the all-important question "Where will my child go to school?" comes up.

"It's very confusing to the general public," said Nikki Belsito with ERA Pacesetters. "I recently tried to explain that we can't do a home search based on the schools for the home. The woman was starting to get upset with me, like I was the one who decided that would be a good thing."

Wes Minton of Prudential York Simpson Underwood has upset some people, too. Telling families wanting to sell their homes that they can't tout the schools their children attended has led to some shock.

"People still think that if they live in a particular area they go to a particular school," he said. "When they find out - when I go out on a listing and say, 'You can't say on your listing kids go to Daniels-Broughton'- they don't believe me."

The new schools plan replaced base-school assignments with "choice:" Parents rank school preferences from a list the system provides. Before, a home-seller could include the elementary, middle and high schools assigned to the home's address. Now, any listing can say only "Wake County schools."

"For liability purposes, we have to completely skirt the issue," said Joseph Hodge of Hodge & Kittrell Realtors. "We have to say, 'We have no idea what's going on. You have to call the school board,' which is terrible."

Agents are afraid of saying the wrong thing, which affects their professionalism, Minton and Belsito said.

"If I say there's a good chance you can get into this school and it doesn't happen, who's the one to blame? It's not going to be Mr. Tata," Belsito said, referring to schools Superintendent Tony Tata. "It's going to be Nikki Belsito, no matter how many disclaimers I put out there."

It'd be nice if real estate considerations had no bearing on how we conduct our school business, but the economy, jobs, houses, neighborhoods and schools are so intertwined that pulling one thread in the wrong direction can unravel the whole county.

"We're already at a time when the market has been hurt by the economy, and then to give potential buyers another reason for hesitation is just devastating, absolutely devastating," Hodge said.

It's interesting that what appears devastating to Realtors hasn't dented the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce's enthusiasm for the plan. Hodge suspects that's because the chamber wants the national noise over Wake schools to die down, no matter what.

"The bottom line is that parents will still have the opportunity to choose among good schools," chamber President Harvey Schmitt said. "I'm confident it will play out well. Like anything else, it will take awhile for everyone to figure out how it works."

A bright spot

One way it could work - the bright side? - is that people selling homes near high-poverty schools, such as those near Fox Road and Brentwood elementaries, will be able to tell prospective buyers their children won't necessarily have to attend those schools.

"I've put that aside for any of my listings that anyone who calls or emails me with an inquiry about schools," Belsito said. "I'll tell them pretty much you're not locked into a specific school. The only trouble is that most of the schools people will want, there's going to be a tremendous waiting list there.

"It's going to present a problem."

The new plan included two opportunities for parents to rank school choices before next fall. One period ended Feb. 24. The other begins March 19.

Anyone who moves to Wake County after the second choice period ends will likely have to choose among schools that have empty seats, no matter how far away from home.

They essentially get what's left.

Schmitt points out that the entire school system is a draw to newcomers. But the way this is set up, how can the perception not be that the schools with empty seats are the least desirable ones?

Maybe it seems fair that newcomers get in the back of the school line, but when it's your house no one wants to buy or that loses value, when businesses bearing jobs don't come, when it's your neighborhood that becomes stagnant, which is going to affect your schools, you'll likely wish this plan had been tweaked in some way.

Reluctant buyer

Will Edwards is relocating from the Washington, D.C., suburbs to Raleigh because he wants to live in a vibrant downtown. He pinpointed a neighborhood but is reluctant to buy a house because he has no idea where his rising fourth-grader would attend school.

"I've covered economic development as a business journalist for Bloomberg, and this is not the way to go about it," he said in an email. "You can't tell in-migrants they're simply going to get table scraps when it comes to something as important as their children's education. That is a massive disincentive."

Come Tuesday, school board members will meet to look at the data from the first round of choices and tweak glaring problems before the second round begins.

Edwards and other people like him aren't going to show up in any of those numbers.

But someone needs to count them all the same.