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Jan. 7, 2010        

 

Board forges ahead with changes    

Any fledgling efforts at cooperation between the new majority of the Wake County school board and its remaining members suffered a setback this week when the board voted 5-4 to end mandatory year-round school assignments despite a host of questions about potential costs and student reassignments.

The resolution, introduced without advance notice in a fashion similar to the board’s first meeting, also marked the first directive to reduce efforts at maintaining socio-economic balance in the schools.

After the vote, Superintendent Del Burns said his staff will immediately begin working on a plan to make the changes, although he isn’t sure what that plan will look like.

In a closely related discussion, the board decided at an earlier meeting Tuesday to survey all Wake County school parents about the kind of school calendar they prefer. The key to that discussion was deciding to collect most of the information online, which speeds up the time it takes to get results and makes it possible to change school calendars next year.

Taken together, the two decisions mean the status of any given year-round school won’t be known until at least February 16 and possible student reassignments won’t be known until March at the earliest.

The actions marked a sharp reversal from the previous meeting Dec. 15 when board members seemed willing to delay major changes in year-round calendars until 2011-2012 so they could collect as much information as possible about parents’ preferences and the related effects of the changes.

Several times during Tuesday’s meetings, which lasted more than eight hours, school board Chairman Ron Margiotta stressed that the board has made no decisions yet and it is simply looking for a way to give parents as much choice as possible as soon as possible.

“We need to know parents’ preferences before we can do anything,” he said. “If we can do what they want, we will. Some changes we just won’t be able to make.”

Two step approach

The first step in the process is to survey parents about what kind of school calendar they prefer. Letters will go home with students beginning next week with instructions about how to take the survey. The deadline will be Jan. 25.

The superintendent’s staff will then compile the answers, including a section for comments, for the board’s Feb. 2 meeting. That would allow board members to decide as soon as their Feb. 16 meeting whether to change the calendars of some schools. Converting some year-round schools to traditional calendars would mean reassigning students for whom there is no longer room.

The students most likely to be reassigned would be those who have applied to attend a year-round school that is then converted to a traditional calendar in 2010-2011. Click here to see the capacities of each school based on the different calendars. (The Partnership will provide a fuller explanation of the school system’s options in a separate release next week.)

Board members did not discuss whether they will hold public hearings for families who might be reassigned. By that point, however, it will be too late to add mobile classrooms for next year because of permit requirements and other constraints. That means any reassignments would have to occur within currently available space.

The second step in the process would then be guided by the resolution that prohibits mandatory year-round assignments. If the families in a year-round school, for example, choose to remain on a year-round calendar, families who dislike that decision can demand a transfer to another school with a traditional calendar.

The resolution also requires the system to make “every effort” to accommodate families who are in a traditional-school calendar and want to attend a year-round calendar school.

Giving parents the time to make those decisions would likely take another two to three weeks. That means it could be late March – but probably closer to mid April or later – before principals are given school rosters. The principals need the rosters to know how many teachers to hire when classes begin again the first week of July.

Any teachers who want to request a transfer for the coming school year will need to make their best guess about what kind of calendar they will be working with as the deadline for teacher transfer requests is early February.

The net effect of the process on the socio-economic balance of any school cannot be considered under the language of the resolution. Several groups have since questioned whether that wording effectively changes board policy on student assignments. If so, a different voting process would be required and the board might need to revisit the question at its next meeting.

Board member Anne McLaurin questioned whether it is possible for the staff to generate quality results in such a short time for both the survey and the student reassignment options. Several board members dismissed her concerns as unwarranted before approving the resolution 5-4.

Decision on legal contract delayed

The first consequence of Tuesday’s split vote on year-round schools came within minutes and it had nothing to do with school calendars. Instead, it involved the board’s resolution approved in December to hire an outside law firm to review the district’s legal expenses and offer advice to Ron Margiotta as board chairman.

The resolution called for Margiotta to negotiate a contract with Thomas Farr of the firm Ogletree Deakins. A summary of the contract, which can be found here, would cost the district up to $50,000 for a review of legal costs and an uncapped amount for any legal advice or representation.

Farr is a well-respected attorney with strong ties to the Republican Party that reach back to the days of former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. The board’s current attorney works for a firm with strong ties to the Democratic Party.

Both political parties were openly involved in this year’s board elections, which are technically non-partisan.

Margiotta wanted to present the contract at Tuesday’s meeting, but board members accidentally removed it from the agenda along with other items when it became apparent the meeting would likely take longer than expected.

By board policy, it takes a two-thirds majority vote to place an item back on an agenda once it has been removed. Having just watched the board majority push through the resolution on year-round schools, most of the board minority was in no mood to oblige them any further. A motion to put the contract back on the agenda failed.

A special meeting is likely before Jan. 19  with the Ogletree Deakins contract as the only item.

Achievement gap, assignment practices to get special attention

One of the few significant topics that drew unanimous support from board members Tuesday was a request by Ron Margiotta to create two ad hoc committees focused on academic achievement gaps and student assignments.

The committee addressing academic achievement will focus on suspension rates, test scores and graduation rates of students who are from poor families. The school system does well on most overall rankings, but it has worked for years to close an achievement gap between middle-class and poor students that has grown recently as statewide standards increase.

The student assignment committee will review the current three-year assignment plan and look at other longer-range issues. That committee will include members of the public suggested by board members. Additional details about its work were not discussed.

Noteworthy…

… For the second year in a row, 197 Wake school system educators were certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. National certification is the highest certification standard teachers can earn and studies have shown the students of nationally-certified teachers post higher test scores than their peers. Wake has 1,702 certified teachers in the system, which is the most in the state and the second-largest number of any district in the nation.

… The Great Schools in Wake Coalition, an organization of 15 community groups created in response to some of the changes being discussed by the school board, was announced Thursday. The group, whose website can be found here, includes organizations such as the YWCA of the Greater Triangle, the Raleigh Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the League of Women Voters.

… In addition to providing live coverage of all committee meetings and regular board meetings, WRAL.com is posting archived video of past meetings on its web site due to increased public interest. The meetings are available live at wral.com. Past meetings can be found by clicking on the education section of the website.  
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Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues. Most of its financial support comes from local business. Send comments to Tim Simmons, VP Communications, at  tsimmons@wakeedpartnership.org