Wake school board committee votes for new assignment policy

In a 2-1 vote, two members of the board's new majority outweighed an incumbent to approve a policy that lists several factors for assigning students but specifically does not mention diversity.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A Wake County school board committee wrestled with issues as broad as poverty in Wake County and as narrow as single words Wednesday before voting 2-1 for a draft policy to implement the new board majority's goal of making community-based school assignment the district's primary goal.

The policy, which would replace the current one that shoots for having no more than 40 percent of any school's students qualify for federally supported free or reduce-price lunches. That goal, which schools often use as a surrogate measure for income or race, has been part of  Wake's assignment policy for several years.

The new policy – "6200" in the school district's system – aims to implement a resolution in which the school board voted 5-4 to say it "commits to establishing Community Assignment Zones." That vote also gives the district staff until June 30 to come up with a transition plan "that will utilize non-discriminatory, objective, data-driven criteria, tools and practices over existing subjective methods."

Frequent school reassignments, partly driven by efforts to balance school utilization as new facilities open every year and the population grows, has been an issue with parents. In November, voters elected four new board members who, joining incumbent Ron Margiotta and electing him chairman, have produced several 5-4 votes on attendance and a statement saying the district remains committee to voluntary desegregation.

Supporters of community assignment say it will keep students closer to their homes, allow for more parental involvement and give parents more options in their children's education.

Opponents, including the other four board incumbents, say they fear that changing the current assignment model would create pockets of poverty in the school system and ultimately re-segregate the schools.

Much of the discussion Wednesday was about whether and how to include "higher needs" among the assignment factors. A draft by Chairwoman Debra Goldman had listed only English as a second language and special education as ways to define the term.

Member Anne McLaurin, who is on the committee and was the sole vote against the new policy, and member Keith Sutton, who was at the meeting, argued for including more specifics, including whether students are not achieving academically. Member Deborah Prickett, a former teacher and school counselor and one of the new majority, said there is no single way to measure that.

Prickett and Chris Malone voted for the policy, which will go the full board next week.

Sutton argued that the policy should set priorities of "community, stability, choice and diversity" that the boards Student Assignment Committee can follow in devising a plan over the next nine to 15 months.

Others, including Margiotta, urged the committee not to draw the policy too narrowly and "tie the hands" of the assignment committee chaired by John Tedesco, who has been the main proponent of the policy change.

The policy, as approved, says assignment "should" be based on:

  • distance
  • choice
  • stability of assignment
  • facility utilization
  • grade structure
  • alignment with the magnet schools program
  • students with higher needs

Having students attend school nearer their homes "is important to ensuring the academic success of all students," the policy states says.

Tedesco and supporters have said that with magnet schools and other ways to encourage parents to make choices other than base-line school assignments, it will be possibly to maintain diversity. They also point out that the district has been unable to meet the 40 percent goal in all schools, even with busing students.

McLaurin referred at the outset to a recent Wake Education Partnership report that looks at creating "stability and balance" in the school system.

That report opens, "For almost three decades, Wake County used a student assignment model driven by efficient use of buildings and the desire to create socio-economic balance in every school."

It says, too, that the recent board action "has also left many people confused about what the school system might look like in the future." It offers some approaches that it says could be used to achieve stability and balance.


Ron Gallagher, Web Editor

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