Wake school board tackles community-based assignment policy

The Wake County school board's effort to put the rubber of community-based schools to the road hit slippery patches Wednesday as the board's Policy Committee began to try to craft a new assignment policy.

Posted Updated

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Wake County school board's effort to put the rubber of community-based schools to the road hit slippery patches Wednesday as the board's Policy Committee began to try to craft a new assignment policy.

What should top the list of assignment factors and how much of a role diversity should play were woven through the discussion of a draft policy written by committee Chairwoman Debra Goldman of Cary.

Almost all discussion about assignment since voters elected four new members in November has divided the board 5-4, with the newcomers and Chairman Ron Margiotta on one side and four veteran board members on the other.

When member Kevin Hill, a member of the board's minority, asked if the board was going to have a work session to look at data about the effects of diversity on student achievement, Margiotta said, "I don't see the need for a work session, to be honest."

"We have a lot on our plate beyond this issue. For some reason, this seems to be all-consuming," Margiotta said. Neither he nor Hill, a former school principal, are on the three-member Policy Committee, but the meeting drew eight of the nine board members.

The committee will wrestle with the issue for some time. A directive in which the full board voted 5-4 to establish community-assignment zones predicted that creating a new assignment model would take nine to 15 months.

The board factions have split over the new majority's decision to move away from an economic diversity policy that has been part of student assignment decisions for a decade.

The current board approved a resolution restating its commitment to voluntary desegregation of schools. However, the five-member majority, led by Margiotta and John Tedesco of Garner, says it sees magnet schools as the primary tool for encouraging distribution of students.

Tedesco, who has stated repeatedly that diversity and community-based assignments are not opposites, said, "I'm all about looking at at academics" and student achievement, not "whole groups of people."

The school system bases diversity calculations on the number of students in a school who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which are federally subsidized and depend on family income.

Much of Wednesday's discussion focused on what constitutes "higher need" students who might benefit from assignment to different schools. The current policy lists four categories. Goldman's draft would eliminate two of those – qualification for lunch subsidies and whether students perform below grade-level on state end-of-grade tests.

Limited English proficiency and the need for special education services would remain.

Board member Keith Sutton of Raleigh said that limiting the qualifications that way could send "unintended messages" to the community and to federal education officials, who are reviewing an application for magnet schools that all members agree help encourage voluntary diversity without mandatory assignments.

Board member Carolyn Morrison of Raleigh wondered aloud if "the people in Washington will take a dim view of this?"

The current assignment policy lists a series of goals for the system, then states: "Maintaining diverse populations in each Wake County school is critical to ensuring academic success for all students. This is supported by research. The school system will also consider other factors that impact communities, families and costs."

Goldman's draft, which she encouraged members to revise with their suggestions, states: "Maintaining stable student populations that consider proximity to home in each Wake County school is important to ensuring academic success for all students. Assignment policies will recognize the impact of student assignment on students, families and communities and the costs involved. The promotion of community schools with choice will increase stability, encourage parental involvement, support and strengthen the community and place emphasis on the education of every student."