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Ask Anything: 10 questions with Wake's Superintendent

Wake County Public Schools Superintendent Del Burns answers your questions about diversity in schools, education lottery money and much more. Plus, Gov. Mike Easley is now taking your questions.

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Del Burns
Why does WCPSS (Wake County Public School System) continue its controversial economic diversity policy without any data to show/prove it increases individual student achievement? – Dennis Jacobs, Cary

There is a relationship between concentrations of students who come from economically disadvantaged families and low academic achievement. While it is not true that poverty causes low achievement, it is true that having large numbers of underachieving and/or poor children in a single school increases the likelihood that the school will decline academically. Generally, if the percentage of poor students in a school can be held to a relatively low percentage, it is likely that the teachers and principal of that school can meet the academic needs of all the students.

In fact, this has been our experience. While there are schools that exceed the board’s desired limit of 40 percent of students qualifying for free/reduced-price meals, it is also true that all schools are able to successfully educate most students. In 2006-07 (the latest year for which we have data), more than nine students out of 10 in Grades 3-8 read at or above grade level.

How many students, classrooms, teachers and administrators are in the Wake school system, and what is the total cost to run the system? – Bill, Raleigh

For the 2007-08 school year, we have 6,779 permanent classrooms and 1,081 mobile or modular classrooms in use throughout 153 school campuses. We have the equivalent of 9,286 10-month teacher positions, and approximately 730 administrator positions (principals, assistant principals, central service administrators). Our student membership on the 20th day of the school year was 134,002. The current operating budget for the 2007-08 school year is $1.16 billion.

Growing up in the Wake County Public School System, I can't help but notice how the influx of Mexican immigrants [has] flooded our school system. Do you anticipate a shortage of teachers to handle this problem? – Elizabeth McLaren, Raleigh

With more than 100 different languages represented in our classrooms, the Wake County School System’s ESL (English as a Second Language) Office has strategically addressed the challenges of a growing population of students with limited English proficiency. For the upcoming school year, nearly 200 ESL teachers will provide services in every school in the system. Following the state’s English Language Development Standard Course of Study, ESL teachers strive to teach and promote English language skills so that students gain access to all courses, graduate on time and participate fully in American society.

Has the N.C. Educational Lottery financially helped the Wake County Public School System, and if so, what is one specific example? – Terry Pritchard, Raleigh

To date, the NC Educational Lottery has generated $14,182,040 to assist in the construction of schools in Wake County. These funds are allocated to Wake County government and then appropriated against expenditures for the school building program. So far, the county has drawn $7,785,491 from the lottery proceeds for current projects, leaving an available balance of $6,396,549.

What is it going to take to get my child into a magnet program? I have applied year after year with no success. I am starting to believe you have to know someone or live in that district to attend one! – Donna LaTour-Cox, Knightdale

Priority for placement in a magnet school is not influenced by who you know, but it is influenced by where you live. Ten percent of placement in available seats is totally random, but the remainder of the placements follow a priority system designed to achieve the goals of the magnet program, which are to reduce high concentrations of poverty and support diverse populations, maximize use of school facilities and provide expanded educational opportunities.

Base assignments to magnet schools usually include nodes with high concentrations of poverty. Therefore, applications from nodes that are assigned to overcrowded schools or schools with low concentrations of poverty have a higher priority than other applications so that placement in the magnet program works to balance the schools.

Do you have a long-term plan in place to remove modular classrooms from schools that do not have adequate infrastructure in place to support them long term, and is there a plan to build enough schools to go back to a traditional schedule for all schools? – Eric Fenstermaker, Raleigh

Several years ago, the Board of Education established a long-term goal of reducing the percentage of students in mobile or modular classrooms to 8 percent. Under the current capital improvement program, progress has been made, but it remains at about 17 percent. In order for the percentage of students in mobile/modular classrooms to be reduced or for schools to convert to the traditional calendar, more schools must be constructed.

The Board of Education has recently received from staff several scenarios showing how many schools would have to be built to make progress toward either objective. As the Board of Education continues developing the next capital improvement program, it will make decisions regarding reduction of the number of mobile/modular classrooms and the number of traditional calendar schools.

Why is it whenever you need additional money and are denied or are asked to account for the monies you already have to manage, you threaten to reduce teachers' salaries and/or benefits instead of reducing the salaries and/or benefits of the administrative staff? I never hear of reducing any thing but what is in use by the students. Why is that? – Lisa Elliott, Raleigh

For 2007-08 there was no recommendation to reduce teachers’ salaries to balance the budget.

Earlier this year during the development of the 2008-09 Board’s budget, the Board of Education directed staff to develop two budget scenarios to my funding request. The first scenario provided information about programs and initiatives that could be put into place if WCPSS was funded by the county at a level similar to county funding requested by the Charlotte Mecklenburg School System. This plan, presented on March 25, 2008, provided programs and initiatives for system alignment and closing of achievement gaps.

The second scenario requested by the board was for a list of possible budget cuts if the school system was funded by the county at a revenue-neutral level. One element of this plan included an option of freezing supplementary pay for teachers in WCPSS at the 2007-08 level. Under this scenario, teachers would receive 2008-09 salary increases to their base pay at amounts legislated and would continue to receive the full salary supplement at the 2007-08 level.

As an additional point of reference, the governor’s budget proposal for 2008-09 calls for providing an average of a 7 percent salary increase to certified staff (teachers) and a 1.5 percent salary increase to administrative staff (along with additional vacation days and a one-time bonus).

With all the projected school facility shortages in Wake County, why was a Brier Creek Middle and High School not built? Instead, there are living condos being built within yards of the Brier Creek Elementary School. Why [was] the massive undeveloped land be sold to developers and not allotted for another middle and high school in Brier Creek? – Christine C., Raleigh

The current 20-acre site of the Brier Creek Elementary School and Community Center/Park was originally purchased by the City of Raleigh for use as a park and community center. When the need for an elementary school in that area was identified, the Board of Education and the City of Raleigh negotiated an agreement to jointly develop the site for the school, community center and park. The Board of Education purchased one-half of the site from the city. There was not additional land available for a middle school or a high school.

I have a daughter going into high school. I do not see the advantage of block scheduling. As a matter of fact, I believe it will be difficult for her in both math and foreign language. Why do we have it? Why don't we have alternatives for motivated hard-working students who just need consistency? She is a straight-A student because she works hard, but she can't go months without math and jump back into it easily. What do we do? – Elizabeth Tew, Raleigh

In 2003-04, 11 high schools moved to a 4x4 block schedule designed to support students in meeting new graduation requirements, provide more elective program and advanced class opportunities and provide more opportunities for students to re-take failed courses. With the block schedule, students have 32 opportunities to personalize their schedule instead of 24 under the old system. Students no longer have to choose between foreign language and music or other electives. Students have more opportunities to take advanced foreign language courses or more than one language. Students who need extra time to learn a subject have fewer tests, quizzes and homework assignments, since their study load has dropped from six to four classes daily. If a student struggles in a course, they can re-take it while staying on track for graduation.

Mr. Burns, I am very concerned that our students are not being protected. I recently found out that there are gangs in our local schools. One lady described that her daughter and son were very scared to walk down the halls at Rolesville High School, due to a few gangs. One of their friends dropped out of school due to their fear. I myself have witnessed teachers turning the cheek and not stepping in to safeguard a child. What measures are you taking to ensure our children feel protected at school? Are you willing to permanently suspend students that have no desire to learn (i.e., student repeatedly fails grade, student assaults another, etc.)? – Former Student, Raleigh

The issue of gangs in our community is one that concerns us all. Within WCPSS, we take our responsibility to provide a safe and orderly learning environment very seriously. We focus on prevention, intervention and suppression in order to provide safe schools. We offer a variety of regular training opportunities for our staff as well as vigorously reinforcing the behavior expected of our students through the appropriate board policies.

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