Education

Wake school board's practices surprise some

Posted January 6, 2010 7:11 p.m. EST
Updated January 7, 2010 7:57 a.m. EST

— Ending mandatory year-round schools in Wake County was not originally part of the published agenda at Tuesday night's school board meeting.

So it came as a surprise to some board members when recently elected board member Deborah Prickett proposed a resolution that makes the school calendar optional for parents – hours after the board toiled over how to go about a survey to gauge parents' attitudes on the matter.

It was the third time the newly elected school board – a majority of the members wanting to end mandatory year-round schools and the district's decade-old student assignment policy – had added action items to the agenda at the last minute.

At its first meeting Dec. 1, the new majority voted to end early-dismissal Wednesdays and to stop putting new schools on a year-round schedule. At a meeting two weeks later, they introduced a motion to negotiate a contract for special legal counsel.

District 3 board member Kevin Hill was among those Tuesday night who expressed concern.

"I had hoped that Dec. 1 would have been the last time that we would deal with adding action items with no prior notice, and I'd like to go on record again asking that we have prior notice – that way we can properly vet these issues," he said.

Eventually, the board voted 5-4 to end the mandatory year-round policy.

Some parents also expressed outrage at the way the new board has conducted its meetings.

"I think I have witnessed a dog-and-pony show at the meeting tonight," one said. "I am very worried about the future of this school system."

Another parent called it "a travesty of democracy."

Anne McLaurin, who has represented District 5 in south Raleigh for two years, echoed those sentiments.

"I was ashamed of how we’re doing business, too," she said Wednesday. "It gets harder and harder to believe we're going to move in a positive direction together if it still comes out in every meeting that there's a new resolution that hasn't been studied."

Responding to the criticism, board Chairman Ron Margiotta said no one should have been surprised by Tuesday's vote.

"Actually, at the last meeting, it was on (the agenda) and withdrawn and brought back at this meeting, so I don't see any real problem with it," he said.

Margiotta said he doesn't sense tension among board members and believes they will be able to work together.

"We all have the same goal in mind," he said. "That's improving the school system. We just have a little different means of getting there."

Despite the negative reaction, many parents, like Joey Stansbury, say they are pleased with the board's new approach.

"These people have heard the voices of the citizens for years and are now moving productively forward on those items," Stansbury said.

It's not clear exactly how the board's decision on Tuesday will affect students. It could mean hundreds, if not thousands, of students being reassigned.

The school system will ask parents to participate in the year-round-schools survey, and then school staff will make recommendations based on their responses.

"Over the next six weeks, it's going to be critical for us to pull together," Wake County Public School System spokesman Michael Evans said. "The final decisions are down the road. We have three months."

But some are concerned that ending mandatory year-round schools is the first step toward creating neighborhood schools, effectively ending the district’s policy that transports students to schools to achieve socioeconomic diversity.

"What are these decisions going to cost us? What are the consequences?" said Yevonne Brannon, with Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a coalition of parents, students taxpayers and civic groups.

Brannon and the coalition worry that the board's decision will lead to even more widespread student reassignment, re-segregation of some schools, fewer school choices for parents and students, and strained finances for the school system and county.

"When you do away with that and you leave it simply to parental choice, what parental choice will end up doing, I'm afraid, is re-segregating these schools," she said.