Schools panel returns focus to assignment debate

Wake school board members hope to have a work session to explore questions about diversity and community schools before the Policy Committee tackles implementing the controversial community schools policy.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A Wake school board decision to push the district superintendent into administrative limbo rapidly faded to the background Wednesday as the board's Policy Committee refocused on the move to eliminate diversity busing and took up routine matters for the 2010-11 student handbook.

The ongoing dispute over a change from busing for diversity to community-based student assignments will be the focus of a work session that committee Chair Debra Goldman said she will ask board Chairman Ron Margiotta to schedule soon.

Asked about Tuesday night's closed-door decision to put Superintendent Del Burns on administrative leave until his resignation takes effect June 30, Goldman said, "We're focused on moving forward."

Acting Superintendent Donna Hargens, appointed Tuesday night, will "keep things going on an even keel" while the board decides how to replace Burns. Burns criticized the new assignment policy after tendering his resignation, drawing the ire of the majority of the board.

The full board is scheduled to take up the community-school "directive" for a necessary second vote at its March 23 meeting. The directive tells the system to institute policies to implement the approach that the board approved for the first time 5-4 at its March 2 meeting. It voted after hours of intense public comment, much of it against the plan.

Goldman said there might be wording "tweaks"  when the resolution comes up again, but she said that the board's attorney has assured supporters that minor changes do not put them back to the start of the process.

Wednesday, board members Keith Sutton, Kevin Hill and Anne McLaurin urged Goldman to press Margiotta to get the work session scheduled before the Policy Committee's next meeting on April 14. All three voted against the move from busing for economic diversity to geographic attendance districts that are blind to race or poverty.

"We must do what is right for every student in Wake County," Goldman said, adding that all nine board members agree on that.

The Policy Committee also moved to consolidate its emerging power, voting to ask the full board to change it from an ad hoc to a standing committee. Hill questioned whether that meant that all policies, such as human resources, will be funneled through Policy Committee rather than through the committees that handle the areas involved.

McLaurin and Sutton also asked Goldman to consider asking Margiotta to expand board committees from three members to four or more to bring more viewpoints into their work.

"We know how the votes will be before we start," McLaurin said. Goldman made a point of inviting all board members, not only committee members,  to raise issues during the policy discussion that followed.

In routine matters, the committee Wednesday approved a number of policy changes, covering student behavior. Some were technical changes to renumber the policies while others clarified existing language. The changes had to be done in time to make the printing of the district's handbook for the school year that begins July 1.

One issue that will return to the committee is whether school principals should be given more leeway in punishments for misbehavior, for example a suspension between 10 days and the remaining school year for some serious infractions.

Students can appeal such decisions to the superintendent and school board, but principals have no discretion under current policies. Hill, a former principal, said the board should meet with assistant superintendents for various areas to ask whether hard-and-fast, clear rules or more discretion would work better for school-level officials or if they feel constrained.

Goldman asked school staff members to set up such a session.