Affordable housing, transit touted to help achieve diverse schools

A coalition of mostly Democratic elected officials and community activists is promoting increased affordable housing and public transit instead of student reassignment as ways to help keep up with growth and maintain diverse Wake County schools.

The politicians and activists brought together by the Great Schools in Wake Coalition say rapid growth and the unpopularity of busing students long distances are making it harder to have socio-economically diverse school enrollments. The coalition says it will take steps such as spreading affordable housing around the county – linked with more public transit choices – to help avoid creating schools segregated by income or race.

“We can not leave the school board in charge of diversity because they simply don’t have the tools to quote unquote fix it themselves,” Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes, a Democrat, said at a forum this week at Fairmont United Methodist Church in Raleigh organized by Great Schools. “It’s going to take all of us – from the commissioners to school board members to electeds to non-electeds to community leaders – to get this done.”

Great Schools in Wake was highly critical of the former Republican school board majority’s efforts to end busing for diversity. But since board control shifted in 2011 to Democrats, the group has blamed the increased number of high-poverty schools on segregated housing patterns outside the district’s control.

Through a series of meetings organized by Great Schools, a vision statement with suggested action steps for dealing with student growth was developed. In addition to transit and housing, steps include:

▪ Build more schools in central locations and fill schools largely through choice;

▪ Market public schools to attract diverse student populations and lessen the negative views of public schools;

▪ Coordinate delivery of human services for students and their families;

▪ Expand preschool and early learning programs.

“We’re not going to solve all of these issues at one time,” Holmes said. “We’re not going to solve them in 2015. We’re not going to solve them in 2016. But we can start.”

At this week’s forum, pre-K, transit and affordable housing drew much of the discussion. Attendees talked about how improving transit options would expand school choices for families and reduce pressures on crowded school buses.

“One of the reasons that our transit system is so broken is that it just is not a functional system,” said Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, a Democrat. “So one of the conversations that we want to have is how do we build a more robust transit system, and then how do we integrate that to our schools and to our recreational areas and to the destinations where people want to go.”

The Wake County Board of Commissioners is expected to put on the ballot in 2016 a referendum requesting voter approval to raise sales taxes to pay for more transit options.

Attendees agreed to share the vision statement and action steps throughout the community.

“We shouldn’t keep rewarding cities with their brand-new 25-acre school if they’re not willing to invest anything into housing, transit, pre-K,” said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Great Schools in Wake. “We’re going to have to have cities be partners in this vision. County commissioners also can’t fix everything for the school system.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui