Wake school board erases last diversity provision from its policies

Posted June 1, 2010 1:11 p.m. EDT
Updated June 1, 2010 7:00 p.m. EDT

Wake County Public School System

— The Wake County school board Tuesday erased the last vestige of its longtime bid for socioeconomic diversity in the system’s schools, approving a policy change that removed diversity or student achievement as reasons its staff should approve transfer requests.

The action came with less passion among board members and without public demonstrations that had accompanied previous votes to strip the diversity goal from the 140,000-student system’s assignment policy.

A 5-4 board majority that includes four new members elected last fall has turned assignment decisions toward creating assignment zones that keep students as close to their homes as possible. Efforts to achieve no more than 40 percent disadvantaged students in any schools have not worked in all cases, and student achievement has not improved enough to keep the policy, they have argued.

The change drops language that says requests for transfers contributing to "greater socioeconomic and achievement diversity may be approved." Parents who dislike their student's school assignment appeal for a transfer.

The move Tuesday was accompanied by a decision to suspend a requirement for two votes to change a policy. The district begins hearing appeals Wednesday on assignments for the 2010-11 school year that starts July 1 for year-round students.

"While I don't support the policy, I will vote for the suspension," member Kevin Hill said during a roll call. Having the policy wait for a second reading later this month would confuse the staff's work, members decided. Hill is one of the four members who have consistently argued against the policy changes.

Support from Hill and member Keith Sutton, another opponent of the changes, was needed for a required two-thirds majority.

WRAL's blog of the school board's other activities Tuesday follows.

5:30 p.m. -- The board had a discussion about whether to approve a decision Chairman Ron Margiotta made last month to hire a second law firm, Shanahan Law Group, when the board was sued over public access to its meetings.

The board won that suit in a quick decision after a hearing, but the board was asked Tuesday to back up Margiotta's unilateral decision. Members Anne McLauren, Kevin Hill and Keith Sutton grilled Margiotta about the decision, which he said he made in consultation with board staff but without asking any other board members.

"Some people have raised questions," Margiotta said in explaining the retroactive resolution. Jonathan Blumberg, the board's attorney for the Tuesday meeting, recommended they approve it to clear up any doubts.

It passed 5-1 with one abstention.


5:00 p.m.

-- With hours to spare, the school board approved a policy change that will let staff members handle appeal hearings for school assignments.

Tuesday was the deadline for parents to file appeals of changed 2010-11 school assignments, and appeal hearings begin Wednesday. With the looming deadline, the board also approved a waiver of its requirements that policy changes be voted on twice.

The full board still will vote on recommendations from the hearings.

4:55 p.m. -- The board voted unanimously to hire a search firm for its superintendent search and to set aside $125,000 for the task.

Board vice chair and search committee chair Debra Goldman told the session that she hoped the actual spending "won't come anywhere near" the $125,000.

When it returned, the board was to take up two requests from its Superintendent Search Committee for using a search firm and for $125,000 for the process.

The district needs to replace Superintendent Del Burns, who resigned effective June 30 because he disagreed with the board majority's action to move away from using socioeconomic diversity as a criterion in making school assignments and approving transfers.

When Burns criticized the board, it put him on administrative leave and named Donna Hargens as interim superintendent.

The move to approve hiring a search agent comes after the committee already has begun interviews for the work. The North Carolina Association of School Boards made its pitch earlier Tuesday, and other interviews are scheduled later this week and next week.

4:50  p.m. -- Before approving a motion for hiring some staff members, the board got a report about the status of hiring and layoffs. The district imposed a hiring freeze on April 12 for teacher positions, but last week lifted it. A freeze on Central Services hiring remains in effect, Assistant Superintendent Stephen Gainey told the board. The district is working with laid-off employees at a "displacement fair" to find other jobs in the system that can be filled, he said. All hiring, he added, is being done with an eye on the budget.

The district, Gainey said, learned lessons from 2008-09 layoffs. People may not be able to stay at schools where they wanted to be, but they may get back to those schools some time in the future.

4:45 p.m. -- State law requires school board members to have annual training, and the board approved two providers, including Ann Majestic, the board's regular attorney. The other was Phil Boyle of Leading and Governing Associates. Majestic charges $175 per hour for board work. Boyle's potential charge was not immediately available.

4:30 p.m. -- A one-year renewal for legal work on any real estate services passed, keeping the district's business with Boxley, Bolton, Garber & Haywood. The contract has a maximum of $100,000 for the year, facilities chief Don Haydon told the board.

4:20 p.m. -- Administrators told the board that the district provides about $6 million annually in contracted services for students with disabilities in the district and speech/language therapy for students in private schools, which is required under state law.

The board's agenda Tuesday included a dozen contracts for special services for disabled students, including two residential facilities. Staff told the board that there is one case in which Wake County pays for a child to be in a residential facility in Indiana. The child's family moved from Indiana, and the same services are not available in North Carolina, the board was told.

4:11 p.m. -- Betsy Lovejoy of Raleigh told the board to continue to support magnet schools. They have attracted good teachers and brought federal money to support efforts at diversity, she said. Teachers are worried now, however, that magnet schools will have concentrations of poverty and, based on a comment from Chairman Ron Margiotta last week, that they be made year-round to accommodate more students.

Chris Aycock of  Raleigh told the board that "we are all Wake County" and that everyone needs diversity. "We have just begun to discuss diversity," he said.

The public comment period brought criticism of a plan to allocate $125,000 for a superintendent search. Vicki Adamson of Raleigh told the board to question hiring "a champagne and caviar" search firm while people are living on "a spam budget."

Jim Martin of Apex told the board he was pleased by an increased focus on student achievement, but did not want to see an effort to place blame for underachievement, whether of parents, students or teachers. The focus should be on community responsibility, he said.

3:25 p.m. -- The board moved into a closed session to take up a personnel matter. State law allows school boards to exclude the public from such sessions.

3:05 p.m. -- The school board opened its regular meeting with a tip of its collective hat to 54 students who graduated last week from the Wake Early College of Health and Sciences. They are the first class to graduate from the special school.

Unlike recent meetings that have brought a crowd to watch board actions on school assignment policy changes, 18 people were scattered around the board meeting room's seats on Tuesday.

1:25 p.m. -- With no discussion on the policy change for transfers, the Committee of the Whole adjourned. The board's voting meeting was slated to begin at 3 p.m.

1:20 p.m. -- The board then moved to a policy change that will let it name hearing panels of staff members to handle the first stages of appeals of school assignments. Appeals of 2010-11 assignments begin Wednesday.

Don Haydon, the district's facilities chief, told the board that the number of assignment appeals appears to be lower than in previous years, running about 800 compared with 1,600 for 2009-10 assignments.

Also on the agenda was a revised policy on school transfer requests. It drops language that had said transfers contributing to "greater socioeconomic and achievement diversity may be approved."

1:12 p.m. -- The Wake County school board began its pre-meeting work session Tuesday request to transfer money to pay for a superintendent search process. The committee the board charged with that job was asking for $125,000, which it said was an outside figure that it did not expect to meet.

Debra Goldman, the committee chair, also asked the board to agree to vote later in the day to approve use of an outside consultant for the search rather than doing it in-house.

"We don't want to spend this much" anywhere near it, Goldman said, adding that unspent money will go back into the district's fund balance.

Board member Keith Sutton asked if the committee had formulated an outline of what it wants in someone to replace Del Burns, who is resigning June 30 and who was put on administrative leave after he criticized board actions earlier this year on the district's assignment policy.

The committee, she said, wants a search firm that has experience finding superintendents for large school districts.

Earlier, Goldman's committee had interviewed one of four outside firms already selected to make presentations to get the job.

David Neter, the system's chief financial officer, told the board that it does not have to hire a low-bidder for the work if another firm can do a better job.