Blog: May 4 Wake school board meeting

Board member Keith Sutton and a three-member minority tried to substitute an assignment policy that would keep some aspects of the current rule.

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Wake County Public School System
RALEIGH, N.C. — The Wake County school board opened its regular semi-monthly meeting Tuesday after a work session in which it discussed how -- or whether -- it can control the civility in public comments and how to go about searching for a new superintendent.

The board also heard the latest updates from staff on the impacts of a $20 million funding cut proposed in Gov. Bev Perdue's 2010-11 budget.

7:30 p.m. -- Board votes 4-3 for new assignment policy without diversity goal

In an expected action, the majority on the board drove a 4-3 vote for a new policy that eliminates diversity in student populations as a goal for assigning students to schools.

The vote was the first of two required votes to implement a new position from the one the district has taken for a decade, trying to not have more than 40 percent of any school population be from poor families.

The vote brought one shout of "bunch of bigots" from the small audience that had remained through a long closed-door session to see the vote.

7:20 p.m. -- Board turns down diversity language in assignment policy

Member Keith Sutton offered a substitute for a proposed new assignment policy, returning the goal of diversity to language in a policy the board majority has driven to make community-based assignment a primary goal.

The board voted it down 4-3.

Diversity, which had been a goal of the district for a decade, was not in the document that the Policy Committee brought to the board after a 2-1 vote last week.

Sutton's proposal also would have added failure to achieve grade-level proficiency to the list of what constitutes higher needs. That, too, had been dropped from the current policy's language.

It stated, however, that "ensuring that proximity to home student safety, and stability of family will be key considerations" in assigning students.

Member Anne McLaurin endorsed Sutton's proposal, saying that it is up to the district to make sure students "who cannot take care of themselves" get help they need.

John Tedesco, who is leading the effort to craft a new assignment plan in keeping with the majority's policy, said he feared the proposal would create "the false understanding that we will solve these problems through assignment." Work to help 'these vulnerable children" through resources and not simply school assignment.

7:20 p.m. -- Rules for what is permitted from public speakers at meetings

The board unanimously approved a new policy saying public speakers at board meetings "should" not attack board members and other speakers personally. An earlier version had said speakers would be "required" to stick to comments about policies and board action and avoid personal attacks.

"Virtually everything I've heard" in recent months at board meetings "would be protected" as free speech under the policy, attorney Ann Majestic told the board. She predicted the order would almost never be used.

Earlier in the day, during a work session, the board talked about the policy. Some meetings have brought verbal attacks on some board members, and the list of speakers has been long since the board took up efforts to move the school system away from a goal of school diversity and toward community-based assignments.

Criticizing board members' work on the Board of Education is within bounds, Policy Committee Chair Debra Goldman said, but attacks on their personal lives or decisions are not.

The goal, Goldman said, is "to draw the line between actions of a board member as a board member and personal" attacks. The board also wants to keep speakers at board meetings from insulting other speakers, she said.

"For me, this is a tight-rope balance," member John Tedesco said. "Let them say whatever they want about me ... than limit their right to free speech," he told his colleagues. Speakers have attacked Tedesco at previous meetings for his leading the effort to chance the assignment policy.

"We're still talking about the right of free speech," member Keith Sutton said. "We can't do anything" to interfere with that."

Other parts of the proposed policy deal with speakers giving time to one another after signing up to speak or signing up for someone else to speak.

Sutton disagreed with language saying speakers are "required" to refrain from attacks, and Goldman said that Majestic had written the language based on precedent.

Member Chris Malone told the others that "we should encourage" people to "feel comfortable" saying what they think. "We signed up for this," he added, but speakers should "demand of themselves decorum." He said he favored a policy to do so.

Margiotta suggested changing the wording to say people "are encouraged" to behave well if Majestic approves the change.

7:05 p.m. -- Long confidential session ends

The board returned from a closed-door meeting of almost 90 minutes and began to assemble for more business. The board had listed personnel matters, negotiations about land acquisition and a huddle with its attorney as the reasons for tonight's closed session.

The law allows the board to meet behind closed doors for certain matters.

4:50 p.m. -- No child left behind

The board approved a staff report on which elementary schools have failed to meet standards under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The report covered what , ones that meet a federal threshold for having low-income students. Students can transfer out of Title I schools that fail to meet achievement goals for two years in a row, and the schools are required to start working to improve their performance.

Elementary schools that are in the improvement program or on a district watch list are:

  • Aversboro
  • Barwell
  • Brentwood
  • Briarcliff
  • Bugg
  • Conn
  • Creech
  • East Garner
  • Fox
  • Hilburn
  • Hodge
  • Lynn Road
  • Poe
  • Reedy Creek
  • Smith
  • Timber
  • Wendell
  • York
  • Zebulon

Of those, Hilburn, Reedy Creek, East Garner and Timber are watch-list schools, staff reported. In the 2009-10 school year, 335 students transferred out of schools under the No Child Left Behind provisions, the staff said.

No Wake elementary schools that are not Title I schools have failed to meet achievement goals this year, the staff said.

Title I status is determined with the same statistic that the school board's majority has decided not to use any longer in assigning students to schools -- how many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based on family income.

4:20 p.m. -- Speakers urge board not to drop diversity in school assignment

Sixteen people signed up to address the board, and all were concerned about the board's plan to approve an official policy dropping diversity from the criteria for assigning student to schools. Among them:

Felecia Washington of Cary, who is black, said she was shocked when one of her five children came home to tell her, "I wish I was white" because there were so few black students in his class.  That prompted her to begin using magnet schools to find more diverse student bodies, she said. Most neighborhoods are still very divided, she said, and dropping the diversity policy in school assignment will begin to undo achievements of the civil rights movement.

Lois Nixon of Cary told the board that diversity is not the only factor in raising student achievement, but it is essential. The public, she said, will look for the board to take up several issues in trying to raise achievement.

Susan Evans of Apex said she first believed that the board majority elected last fall was sincere, but misdirected. Now, she said, "I have no choice but to believe that you get it ... and choose not to care" about diversity. "This board is leading the least informed members of our public" to think that diversity is the cause of unhappiness with recurring reassignments.

Diversity leads to busing 3 percent of the student population, she said, and dropping the policy would do nothing to change the problems that have occurred as students are moved to accommodate growing populations in the schools.

Diane Bader urged the board to expand its community-based assignment policy to include language saying that students who perform below grade level are among the students who have special needs to be considered during assignment decision-making.

Amy Womble of Cary told the board that school employees are afraid to bring up failings they see in the school system because they think they may face punishment.

Donna Starling of raleigh asked the board to discuss openly the problems the system faces. She said she has learned that families in the black community want to move to charter schools to get better education.

3:50 p.m. -- District-developed test-prep tools demonstrated

Teachers who have helped develop training  guides and videos called "Success Stories" to help students prepare for end-of-grade and end-of-course tests demonstrated some of them for the board. The tools cover reading and math and will be available through the district's Web site, the creators said.

Member John Tedesco asked if steps are being taken to make material available to families that don't have Internet access. The teachers said that community services in the district know about it, and teachers provide time for students to access the series during the school day.

3:40 p.m. -- Current year budget running slightly head of plan

The board learned that ongoing changes in the 2009-10  budget have resulted, so far, in spending about $1.5 million less than planned. Whether that money will be available for the next year depends on whether budgeted revenues for the current year prove accurate, however, the staff told the board.  That won't be known until the fiscal years ends June 30.

3:15 p.m. -- Board opens semi-monthly meeting with light attendance by public

Despite calls by opponents of the community-based student assignment policy for a crowd to decry an expected first approval, the board meeting opened before an audience of about 20 people scattered around the room that can accommodate more than 100.

2:45 p.m. -- Latest budget news: State cuts remain at $20 million, but Legislature is yet to act

Returning to a difficult subject, the board got its latest briefing on budget problems for the year that starts July 1. Gov. Bev Perdue's budget proposal brought cuts of about what the district had expected -- $20 million -- beyond cuts the board already has accommodated, financial officer David Neter reported.

The total includes about $13.5 million in discretionary cuts, meaning the board can decide how to accommodate the reduced funding, Neter said. The rest of the reductions are in specified areas, he said.

No one knows what may happen when the Legislature begins its short session on May 12 and works out what it wants to do to reduce the second year of the spending plan it approved in 2009.

From 2009-10 to 2010-11, Neter and his staff said, the system already has cut or will have to cut a total of about $34 million dollars. The proposed budget that the board sent to the county commissioners last month with a request for level funding from last year totals $1.4 billion.

Member Keith Sutton, Finance Committee chair, says legislative leaders are saying they want to vote on a budget by May 20. The district also has to hear what county commissioners will allot before the board can vote on another proposed budget that takes those numbers into account.

Chairman Ron Margiotta said the board had tried to arrange a meeting with Wake County's state legislators before the short session opens, but was told it couldn't be scheduled. Then a meeting was set for May 19, but it had to be canceled, he said. He has been told that a meeting will be set up as soon as legislators can do it, he said.

Terri Kimsey, from Neter's staff, said the board will have some flexibility in how it implements cuts, but member Anne McLaurin said "these are very, very serious cuts" that are coming.

"Education is the best place you can spend money ...even more important than health," said McLaurin, who is a doctor. It is the best way to avoid other issues, she said, adding that education is even a strong predictor of future health.

1:55 p.m. -- Finding a permanent superintendent

The board took up the issue of how to search for a permanent replacement for Superintendent Del Burns, was placed on paid leave after he objected to the direction that the board's current majority is taking. He resigned effective July 1, but the board shoved him aside and named one of his deputies, Donna Hargens, as interim superintendent.

Member Debra Goldman said the largest issue is whether to hire an outside search firm and, if so, how to go about that.

Member Anne McLaurin asked about what was done before, drawing a comment from Chairman Ron Margiotta that he thought Burns was the "anointed" candidate when he was hired. Other members said that the system should consult with others in the region that have carried out the process.

"As important a step as this is that we are taking ... we don't have to rush. This is a very important position," Margiotta said, adding that he is comfortable with Hargens' leadership.

Member Keith Sutton said he felt there was some urgency to get a permanent superintendent in place. he and Goldman both raised the issue of paying a search firm at the same time that the board has cut the school budget and is expecting to trim at least $20 million more because of state budget cuts.

Wake County is the 18th-largest school system in the U.S., Goldman answered, and it needs "the top athletes in the field" applying. "I hate to have to spend a penny," she said, but she added that hiring a search firm is the way to handle a complex search process.

1:15 p.m. -- School board hears plan that staff hopes will reduce appeals

The district staff outlined the process used to give parents a chance to request year-round or traditional calendar schools for their children. Notices will go out as close as possible to May 15 that the window is open for requests. Whether parents get their choices depends largely on whether the closest school with the calendar they request has seats available, the state said.

Requests are due by June 1.

"We will make every effort to help" families get into schools with calendars of their choice, Laura Evans, from the system's Growth and Planning Department, told the board. They said they would implement a board suggestion that rejection letters about assignments explain why and explain that the district will try to work with parents on second choices. Opting for a next-closest school with the desired calendar will not include district-supplied transportation, however, board Chairman Ron Margiotta noted.

Parents can request transportation for a transferred student, one attending a different calendar or a magnet school, but they first must have an approved transfer request. Parents get material explaining the transfer-request process with their child's school assignment for the coming year, the staff said.

Some board members urged the staff to reach out to all parents, perhaps through school guidance counselors, to "aggressively" make sure families know their options. For example, students whose "base" assignment is to a school with a modified calendar have an option to switch to a traditional-calendar school and be transported their.

Some requests are automatically approved by the staff, such as finishing at an existing school and keeping siblings in the same school. Students affected twice within three years also get their requests, Evans said. Denied requests can be appealed to the school board.

Evans said the staff expects to get fewer appeals this year than in previous years because they will try to accommodate calendar requests. Margiotta said the board is looking at possibly having a hearing officer take appeals and bring recommendations to the board for decisions.

Someone from the staff would be assigned, the board said. That would eliminate individual board members having to handle the approximately 1,000 appeals received in each of the last two years, Evans said. Member Debra Goldman noted that the system otherwise would require each board member to sit on 223 appeals hearings, with two members in each one.

"I have always compared sitting on those appeals hearings to wakes," Margiotta said in explaining that parents or students are often distressed when they appeal.



Ron Gallagher, Web Editor

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