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June 17, 2010

 

Timetable for new assignment plan released

A preliminary plan showing new community-based student assignment zones could be ready as early as this fall under a timetable offered to school board members this week.

The timetable is the most detailed look yet at how the school system would manage the transition from the current assignment model to the one approved by the school board in March.

The current plan assigns most students to nearby schools while trying to maintain some socio-economic balance in the classrooms. The board’s new plan eliminates balance as a goal in favor of community-based assignments.

But as the timetable illustrates, making the change isn’t as easy as just sending out new assignment sheets before the start of the school year. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of any detailed plan to guide the transition.

Despite all the debate and discussion, the only outline that exists is a proposal suggested by board member John Tedesco. Tedesco, who chairs a new student assignment committee, has repeatedly refused to call his suggestion a plan.

In concept, however, the new board majority has generally agreed it wants to retain much of the current magnet school program, provide families with more choices, emphasize school assignments close to home and possibly add new programs such as academies or vocational schools.

That immediately begs the question of how administrators are supposed to know what teachers to assign to which schools. It also suggests the need for numerous public meetings as attendance lines are drawn and details are modified.

That approach helps explain why any preliminary plan released this fall is almost sure to be reworked in the months that follow. The current timetable suggests a final plan won’t be ready until January 2012.

In the meantime, enrollment growth of at least several thousand students per year is expected to continue. The current capital program has enough money left for only three more schools.

That means part of the new student assignment process will require that the board decide when voters should be asked for more school construction money and where the new schools will be built.

Several board members have already said they would like to speed up parts of the timetable and make 2011-2012 a transition year to the new community-based assignment model. It’s unclear how that would be accomplished.

Regardless, the timetable released this week will serve as the starting point for future  discussions.

 

More protests promised over assignment plan

For those who believe a picture is worth a thousand words, the image of four civil rights advocates being led from a school board meeting in handcuffs says quite a bit about the current state of affairs in Wake County.

Those arrested were NAACP President Rev. William Barber, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church Senior Pastor Rev. Nancy Petty, Duke professor and author Timothy Tyson and Wake County parent Mary D. Williams.

The four made it clear from the moment they approached the podium that they intended to get arrested as an act of civil disobedience. As soon as they started speaking, a statement was distributed on their behalf that said in part “If it is necessary that we be locked up to resist policies that will lock down our children in re-segregated, high-poverty, and unconstitutional schools, so be it.”

Unlike the confrontational exchanges that led to the arrest of several young adults at the March school board meeting, this week’s protestors rarely raised their voices. When they began singing protest songs, about 20 people in the audience stood to join them.

Chairman Ron Margiotta did his best to avoid the arrests, first by letting the group speak for roughly 30 minutes and then calling a recess that was even longer. Once board members left their seats for the recess, the protestors quickly occupied the empty chairs at the table. From there, they offered detailed explanations of their positions to the media and audience members.

At one point, board member John Tedesco stepped into the room to listen. That prompted Tyson, a senior research scholar at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, to address him about the segregationist history of the term “neighborhood schools” and the constitutional underpinnings of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Tedesco has suggested in past meetings that the school board’s decision to eliminate diversity as a goal of student assignment is consistent with the landmark Supreme Court ruling.

Following the arrests Tuesday, the group held a press conference Wednesday at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh promising more events and legal challenges.

 

School board members sharpen differences

Any fledgling efforts at compromise between majority and minority members of the school board appeared to fall apart this week in a series of 5-4 votes that started with the re-election of board Chair Ron Margiotta.

The school board typically confirms leadership positions or makes changes during the first meeting in June each year. Various board members had privately discussed different roles in the weeks leading up to the most recent meeting.

But in the end, Margiotta was re-elected as chair and Debra Goldman was re-elected as vice chair. Both votes were 5-4. Keith Sutton from the school board minority was defeated for both positions by a vote of 4-5.

In prepared remarks following his election, Margiotta praised the changes made so far and made it clear more are coming. “Solutions that were once effective will no longer be so,” he said. He described board minority members Kevin Hill, Anne McLaurin and Carolyn Morrison as “very passionate advocates for what they thought was the right course.”  (Full remarks can be found here beginning at the 10-minute mark.)

Differences between the two sides only grew sharper as the meeting wore on.

At one point during a discussion about budget issues, the disagreements resulted in the majority voting to effectively shut down the school system on July 1. Once the effect of that vote was understood, they agreed instead to a slightly different resolution that will keep the system running.

During a debate about hiring a search firm to help find a new school superintendent, the board voted 5-4 to eliminate a requirement that the superintendent have education experience.

Goldman, who chairs the search committee, said the change was necessary so the board could “cast a wide net” while looking for candidates. Hill responded by stressing the need to find a candidate who is more passionate about educating children than running a business.

The debate moved back and forth before board member John Tedesco jumped in. “I think we’re just dancing around the public debate that the entire county already knows,” he said. “This board wants to be able to consider – as is our allowance according to state statute – non-educators for the role.”

The majority then approved hiring the search firm of Heidrick & Struggles for a fee of $82,500 plus expenses. The firm has helped hire leaders for large urban systems and is experienced in searches for higher education, but K-12 is not its specialty.

Minority board members preferred competing proposals, including an offer by the N.C. School Boards Association to conduct a search for roughly $15,000. It later became apparent why that offer was rejected when the board voted 5-4 to end its membership in the state association as well as the National School Boards Association.

No formal reasons were given for cutting ties, although some of the majority board members complained about the $40,000 in combined membership fees and a feeling the N.C. School Boards Association was partisan.

Every school district in North Carolina belongs to the state association.

   
Noteworthy

… In one of the few meaningful unanimous votes by the school board this week, the law firm of Tharrington Smith was retained as board counsel. One of the first resolutions approved by the new school board majority Dec. 1 called for the appointment of an interim special counsel to review legal fees, suggesting legal costs were too high. A closer review of those fees, however, found Wake’s legal costs were noticeably lower than comparable districts.

… The school system has reached an agreement to pay $4.3 million for 143 acres in eastern Wake County where a high school and elementary school will be built. The site replaces the one rejected by the board in February near Forestville Road.  County commissioners still need to approve the purchase. The high school could open as early as 2013.

… Rafe Esquith, an author and veteran educator who is the only teacher to be awarded the president’s National Medal of the Arts, will be at Quail Ridge Books and Music on July 31 at 7 p.m.  A teacher at Hobart Elementary in Los Angeles, Esquith wrote the popular “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire!” He will be in Raleigh to promote and discuss his newest book.

 

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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. We are supported in part by contributions from readers such as you. Please send comments or questions to Tim Simmons, VP of Communications, at tsimmons@wakeedpartnership.org