Education

It’s just a study, but school district breakup idea draws a strong backlash in Wake

Students crowd a stairway as classes change at Heritage High School in Wake Forest, NC, on September 10, 2015.
Students crowd a stairway as classes change at Heritage High School in Wake Forest, NC, on September 10, 2015. cseward@newsobserver.com

County Commissioner John Burns says he is “inalterably opposed” to splitting the Wake County public schools into smaller school systems. State Rep. Chris Malone says he is too.

But Malone, a Wake County Republican, also sponsored the bill creating a joint legislative committee charged with deciding whether to recommend passing legislation to let previously merged school districts break themselves up.

That doesn’t mean he supports splitting the Wake County Public School System, said Malone, a former Wake school board member. “I would oppose any legislation to split up Wake County,” he said by phone Wednesday morning. “It’s a well-run school system, and it doesn’t need to do that right now.”

But communities in other North Carolina counties might not feel the same way about their school systems, Malone said. He recalled the days when the Wake County schools, with their population and power concentrated in Raleigh, ignored the schools in eastern Wake.

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Rep. Chris Malone

“It was tragic to see how few extra classes were provided in eastern Wake County,” Malone said.

“If that is happening in a town elsewhere in North Carolina, you can understand why they’d want that,” he said, referring to the power to create a school district. “It’s not a bad thing to want a good education for your children.”

Malone thinks people are reading too much into the joint legislative committee and the legislation that created it. He said he couldn’t imagine a scenario in which state lawmakers would break up a school system. “We’re not talking about doing it ourselves,” he said.

Instead, any legislation coming out of the General Assembly would likely give break-up power to the counties, perhaps through a voter referendum, Malone said. “We’d be giving them the power to make the decision on their own,” he said.

But even the possibility of breaking up the Wake County schools prompted people to take to social media this week to mostly condemn the idea. On Twitter and Facebook, Wake residents said breaking up the schools would lead to resegregation and higher costs to taxpayers.

One of the most vocal critics was Burns, the Wake commissioner.

“Breaking up @wcpss would be a catastrophically bad idea,” Burns, a Democrat, wrote in a series of Twitter posts. “Our community has severe economic disparities that have some pretty clear geographic lines. You cannot break this system up in a way that would be equitable.”

“And if you do break up @wcpss, the funding issues would be nightmarish,” Burns continued. “Which of the multiple districts has to wait for a new high school? Equal funding wouldn’t address systemic inequities. Taxes would skyrocket. Unavoidably. And inequity would be cemented.”

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Wake County Commissioner John Burns Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

People who support breaking up school districts need to appreciate the cost, Burns wrote. “Folks, if you think northern-style, small, self-segregating school districts are a good idea, let me introduce you to the property tax rates in Connecticut and Massachusetts,” he said. “How many superintendents do you want to pay?”

Monika Johnson-Hostler, chairwoman of the Wake County Board of Education, is among those who can’t think of a good reason to break up the public schools. “I just can’t see where the advantages would be,” she said on Wednesday.

But Johnson-Hostler can see disadvantages, including the resegregation of Wake schools. “We know there are financial inequalities across the county,” she said. “I do think it would easily prompt resegregation.”

“People don’t live in neat little pockets” filled with equal parts poor, middle class and wealthy families, Johnson-Hostler said. “People tend to live where they can afford.”

Breaking up Wake schools, then, could create affluent school districts in parts of the county and poor ones elsewhere, she said. “That is a fear of mine,” she said.

A Wake County with multiple school districts would cost taxpayers more than a unified school district, Johnson-Hostler said. “We’re going to have multiple superintendent and leadership staffs who cost money,” she said.

Johnson-Hostler has heard the argument that multiple school districts would serve Wake well after a snow or ice storm. Students in a district with clear streets could return to school while students in a district with still-hazardous streets could stay home.

But students aren’t the only people who need to get to school, Johnson-Hostler noted. A teacher living in snow-covered northern Wake might not be able to get to her school in Cary with clear streets.

“I still don’t understand why people think this is a good idea,” Johnson-Hostler said of breaking up the schools.

On Facebook, Raleigh resident John Law said he too feared breaking up Wake schools would lead to resegregation. “We had two systems when I was in elementary school here,” he wrote. “They did away with it because the two systems were segregated. If they did away with them to stop the segregation, why do you think they would want to bring it back?”

“If the city of Raleigh is all in one district, and it should be, I do not see how it would not start to resegregate the school system,” Law said later in a Facebook message.

“I can see both sides on this one,” Brian Blum of Apex wrote, also on Facebook. “The system is very large and doesn’t serve our children as well as it could.”

In a Facebook message, Blum said he had pulled his children out of Wake County’s public schools in favor of private school. “Wake County schools, along with the charters in the area, have so many different educational styles taking place right now that at some point they need to look at what method works best and set that as the primary education method,” he said.

But he agreed with those who say that creating multiple Wake County school districts would be expensive. “One of the big things to keep in mind is that cost will increase as you need multiple administrations and administrative offices,” he said. “There’s a reason that taxes are so high in the Northeast and Midwest.”

Malone said fears about school break-ups are premature. “It is a study committee,” he said. “People forget that.”

“It’s fairly early in the game to be concerned about anything,” he added.

Scott Bolejack: 919-829-4629, @ScottBolejack

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