Wake County Schools

Blog: In new 5-3 alignment, Wake board stops zone assignment work

On a request from Debra Goldman to drop an approach that she said is dividing communities and causing upset across the county, the board approved a resolution stopping the process of drawing assignment zones.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Wake County Board of Education held a work session Tuesday afternoon before its monthly voting meeting. The work session agenda consisted mostly of updates, including ones from the committee searching for anew superintendent and one dealing with the controversial change to a community-based student-assignment system.
9 p.m. – The board voted 5-3 to immediately stop a student assignment revision process that had been headed toward a series of assignment zones. The vote shifted the 5-4 alignment with which the board voted earlier this year to drop using socio-economic diversity and to move to community-based student assignment.

The vote had four members who had opposed the new assignment policy joining member Debra Goldman, who said she remained committed to community-based assignment but that "the zone process" for designing a community-based attendance system "is not working." She asked the board to approve a resolution saying that efforts to design attendance zones will stop.

She called for an "equity-based" system, and member Kevin Hill, who has opposed the district's dropping of the diversity policy, immediately seconded her resolution.

"Board level committees, WCPSS departments, and other administrative committees with relevant responsibilities ... are directed to provide recommendations for consideration and/or approval for each school [using] the following factors to the extent practicable: parental choice, proximity of students to schools, stability, school capacity, equity and equal opportunity for a sound, basic education for all students as provided in our Constitution."

"This is still working toward community-based schools," Goldman said, but she added that it needs to be done without "putting in lines and dividing communities." The board's Student Assignment Committee has tentatively proposed using a series of attendance zones based on current high school attendance areas.

Member John Tedesco, who chairs the committee, said that staying with a system that links families to base schools will inevitably lead to many transfers because of growth and unhappy families.

"There's no right way to do this, but we only get one chance," Goldman argued. The maps with zone lines were not it, she said.

 The issue, Goldman said, is children, not political agendas, and she called for "data-driven decisions."

The Student Assignment Committee is scheduled to meet next week. Chris Malone, one of three board members on it and an ally of Tedesco, seemed unfazed and said after the vote, "Well meet. We'll just do it differently."

8:40 p.m. – The board approved a schematic design for the next high school to be built, officially known as H-6 but expected to be called Rolesville High School, but it first debated whether to tell architects to enclose some outside stairwells in the design. The architect's design for the four-story building uses five outside covered staircases in addition to four inside for the expected 2,200 students.

In an amended motion, the board voted approval 7-1 with a provision to modify the outdoor stairwells.

Member Debra Goldman, who had questioned the use of outside stairs as a safety hazard when the board discussed the design during its earlier work session, raised the issue again. She said the town of Rolesville had raised concerns about the stairs, and then other members asked to see it. Member Keith Sutton read the letter, which said the mayor, board of commissioners and town staff had concerns and probably would not approve the design if the outside stairs are to be used for regular traffic, not just emergencies. The school system needs local building approvals when it erects facilities.

Hal Bowen from Cherry Huffman architects told the board that trying to use the outside stairs only for exit could raise problems with traffic on inside stairs and would depend on how the building was used for classes. The outside stairs meet building codes, he said, and have been used in schools before.

Enclosing the stairways would cost about $100,000 each, Bowen said. He told the board that designing exterior stairs saved money and allowed architects to devote interior space to common areas that people said they wanted in a new school.

Wake has exterior stairways elsewhere, but not on a four-story building, Desormeaux said.

8:20 p.m. – The board voted 7-1 to approve a staff request to hire construction and design managers for several planned schools. Chairman Ron Margiotta verified that approvals do not commit the system to build the schools, only to continue designing them. Joe Desormeaux, who oversees construction work for the school system, said the staff wanted to waive the usual selection process for the work because the system is using plans for buildings that the selected companies have already done for the district. Construction contracts will be put out for bid, he said.

Board members said they wanted to make sure that at some point, the board will decide which two of three proposed schools to build with money available from the district's last construction bond issue.

Member Debra Goldman urged that the district not simply repeat previous decisions to meet a deadline. "I'd like to see this bidded out. I think it would be worth the time," she said. The schools are to come on line in 2013.

Don Haydon, the district's facilities director, told the board that state law does not provide for bidding for professional services like those being sought, and that a request-for-proposal process would be used instead. The process for the new schools is to use plans that already have been used, making small changes to adapt the plans to each school site.

8:10 p.m. – The board approved a resolution endorsing Make a Difference Day on Oct. 23. The event is a volunteer-action day, and the school system is asking Wake residents "to help increase early childhood literacy" by making Early Literacy Kits and dropping them off for distribution to students who have few materials to read at home.
7:55 p.m. – The board approved a $180,000 one-year contract with Communities in Schools of Wake County for "graduation coaches" to work with about 50 ninth-grade and sixth-grade students who have behavioral or attendance issues at Knightdale and Millbrook high schools and East Wake Middle School. Board member Carolyn Morrison asked staff to try to get people with teaching licenses, but the board did not amend the contract to make it a requirement.
7:50 p.m. – The board approved its consent agenda of non-controversial items, then unanimously approved calendars for the 2011-12 school year.
7:30 p.m. – Board member Debra Goldman confirmed during a recess that she had met with Chairman Ron Margiotta and member John Tedesco at her Cary home to discuss her dissatisfaction with how Tedesco's Student Assignment Committee is running. One of the public speakers at the meeting had questioned shortly before whether such a meeting had occurred. The speaker, Barbara Garlock of Raleigh, had questioned whether members were working outside public meetings to decide what would happen at public sessions. Such gatherings could, under some circumstances, violate the state Open Meetings Law.

At the start of the meeting, Goldman asked Margiotta to put a discussion of the Student Assignment Committee on the agenda. He told her she could make a motion later in the meeting. Several other routine changes in the agenda had been made before Goldman spoke, and when Margiotta asked the board to approve its agenda "with those changes," he did not clarify whether he included an item for Goldman's concerns.

7:15 p.m. – "I thought the holy grail for Republicans was fiscal responsibility," Robert Siegel of Raleigh told the board before adding that it had adopted its new student assignment policy without knowing the fiscal implications. The board, Siegel said, could not get voter approval for a bond issue "for a roll of toilet paper."

Adrienne Lumpkin of Raleigh echoed Siegel's comments, saying "the elephant in the room is cost." The new assignment process will leave "a mess" in the community, she charged.

"The board is recklessly advancing" an assignment policy without including the public and without examing whether the new system will enhance student achievement, Lynette Aytch of Raleigh said during her time. Aytch works for the North Carolina Partnership for Children.

"Should we not fight to protect the children?"Ilina Ewen of Raleigh said to the board. Saying her sons would not be harmed by the new assignment policy, she charged that there is a split between people who want to protect all children and those who want to protect only some.

"It is time to stop," Betsy Lovejoy told the board, adding, "You are going too fast down a road" with its new assignment policy.

Monserrat Alvarez, a Meredith College student who said she graduated from the Wake County system, argued that the former diversity policy had "helped me to be who I am today."

Barbara Garlock of Raleigh said she is a parent "who was very happy with the way things were going" until the current year. "Is the majority relinquishing its responsibility to the children of Wake County" by following pre-determined agendas, she asked. She questioned whether board members meet out of the public view to decide actions the majority will approve. As with all speakers at meetimgs, board members did not respond.

6:45 p.m. – "Miss Goldman, you are now experiencing the frustration" about the student assignment planning process that the public has felt for many months, Amy Lee of Raleigh told the board. Member Debra Goldman has complained that Student Assignment Committee Chairman John Tedesco is not involving the board in the planning process enough. The two exchanged remarks during a board work session earlier in the day. The board may be on a "political clock," Lee said.

A student, Jocelyn Wilson, told the board that she freared her high school diploma might be worthless if the district loses accreditation from a group that is examining how the board decided to shift from an assignment policy that used socio-economic diversity to one that emphasizes sending students to schools close to their homes.

"Why have there been no community meetings held" before the planning process began for the new policy, Diana Bader of Cary asked the board. Chairman Ron Margiotta asked Bader to sit down, saying her time had expired. She said the clock on the speaker's podium showed she had time left. "You're in here every week," Margiotta said. "The board chair is picking on me!" Bader said. Margiotta then let her finish after saying the board has no way to reset the speaker's clock, unlike sporting events.

6:30 p.m. – As the public comment portion of the meeting began, Christopher Aycock of Raleigh, who described himself as a businessman, said a broad group of citizens are concerned about the effect of the new community-based assignment policy on the system's chances to get grant funding. Opponents of the board's decision to abandon a diversity policy has brought several protests and a complaint from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice that the change will violate the Civil Rights Act by creating high-poverty schools.

Patty Williams of Cary told the board that "it's time" to stop ignoring "evidence that says you are taking our schools in a disastrous direction" with the new assignment policy.

Mary Phillips of Fuquay-Varina criticized the board for how it is handling assignment and said people are wholly confused. She also critiicized the behavior of some board members during the board's earlier work session.

Pete Fahrquar of Raleigh told the board it should immediately make public comments people make on the district website about draft student assignment maps. The board has raised concerns that the comments, while public records, might expose information about specific students. It has asked attorney Ann Majestic for help figuring out what to do about the issue.

6:02 p.m. – Board member Debra Goldman took the unusual step of asking Chairman Ron Margiotta to add a discussion of student assignment  to the evening's agenda. Members often ask to have items moved to a section where there will be discussion rather than a unanimous vote for the "consent agenda."

Member Deborah Prickett then asked to add a discussion of an effectiveness index that the district has been working toward in evaluating how well instruction addresses student needs.

5:35 p.m. – In a faster-than-usual moved from their committee room to the official board meeting room, Chairman Ron Margiotta convened the board's voting meeting. The board has switched from two voting meetings a month to one.

Four audience members wore neon-green baseball caps labeled "National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer," and about a half-dozen Raleigh police officers were in and just outside the room. The board's previous meeting in September was the first in several sessions in which there were no arrests of protesters during the public comment portion.

5:30 p.m. – The search firm hired to help the board find a new superintendent has found several candidates and continues to look for more, member Debra Goldman reported to the board. She chairs an ad-hoc committee charged with finding a replacement for Superintendent Del Burns, who quit earlier this year in a disagreement with the board over the change to a community-based assignment policy.

The board has yet to see any qualifications that Heidrick & Struggles, the consultant, has drawn up based on a series of meetings with stakeholders, Chairman Ron Margiotta and member John Tedesco told Goldman.

"Now calm yourself down," Goldman told Tedesco, bringing a retort in which he addressed her as "prom queen."

5:20 p.m. – Member John Tedesco rapidly briefed the board on the work of a committee charged with finding a way to implement the school system's new community-based student assignment policy. The committee, which has three board members and nine community members named by each board member, has learned about various aspects of the district's student achievement, Tedesco said.

Board member Debra Goldman has told Tedesco at other meetings that she is worried because she feels the rest of the board is not being sufficiently included in the planning work, and she indicated this week that she might vote against a plan if that continued. No plan is expected to come before the board before late this year or next year, though the board has indicated it might try to phase in some aspects of the new policy for next fall.

For a decade, the Wake system had used socio-economic diversity as a factor in assigning students to schools. The current board overturned that in a series of 5-4 votes that have brought demonstrations and other protests, sometimes leading to arrests at board meetings.

"I am concerned about the way this plan is being presented," member Debra Goldman said of the Student Assignment panel. "Each time you have a meeting, the temper in this county rises," Goldman told Tedesco. "It's not just about community-based schools," she said. The only board voices being heard at meetings, she said, are Tedesco and member Chris Malone. Tedesco, Malone and Carolyn Morrison are the three board members of the committee.

"I will ask one more time" about having all board members added to the committee, Goldman said to Chairman Ron Margiotta.

Tedesco told her he would try to answer her question about committee work, though he added, "It was more grandstanding for all the cameras looking at you."

The committee has restructured its meeting agendas to give all board members time to have input. Goldman said that was good, but there still were only three people casting votes. Every step of the plan should be brought to the full board, she argued.

"We're making a plan," Tedesco said. "I don't agree with your plan," Goldman said.

Member Anne McLaurin said that the committee was making changes to proposed attendance-zone maps in an accelerated process. Tedesco answered that the committee is working through a process, not making final devisions.

"Everything that comes to that committee is decided by you and Chris," Goldman said.

Member Deborah Prickett told Goldman she disagreed and that Tedesco had given her chances to speak but that she "didn't jump in."

"We need to calm down a little bit," Malone said. "We're in the very early stages of a process."

"You can't say 'calm down, calm down'" Goldman said. Malone said Goldman had been given chances for input and did not take them.

No one should think that current maps on the district's website are the "be all and end all" of the process. "Stick with us" and the plan will be "all right," he said.

"You're building and building and building" a plan on "a foundation that has not been approved by the board," Goldman said just before Margiotta ended the discussion.

5:05 p.m. – Administrators asked for permission to issue a request for proposals for a parent-counseling program under the district's Project Enlightenment program rather than going directly to a county agency as a contractor. Previously, the staff had wanted to contract with the Wake County Department of Health and Human Services for the services because the board had cut Project Enlightenment funding in its final 2010-11 budget. That had drawn some questions.

Marvin Connelly, assistant superintendent for student support services, briefed the board on the plan. He said that the district needs to have clinical-level counselors in the Project Enlightenment program and cannot provide the same parent-counseling services with other counselors and psychologists who work in the school system. He said the schools hope to target 500 families this way.

Member Carolyn Morrison said she has seen the Project Enlightenment counselors at work and thought it important that the same people who had been providing services be kept in the positions.

Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens told the board that the administration's goal was to go outside for help in order to provide the same services as before the budget cut while not incurring the benefit costs associated with employees.

It is possible that there may be providers who are "maybe even better" than the county department, Connelly said.

"These are recurring dollars, not one-time" spending, member Kevin Hill asked. Hargens told him that was right and the effort was to get the same services for less money than was spent before.

4:45 p.m. – The board heard from committees about proposed calendars for the 2011-12 school year, which starts next July 1 for year-round schools. The board had raised some questions about the calendars at its work session two weeks ago. Staff members said they had considered all the questions, made a few changes in the next calendar and added several items for the calendar committees to consider when they draw the 2012-13 calendars next year.

The proposals met with general approval, indicating they would be approved later at a voting meeting.

4:35 p.m. – Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens told the board that sessions are going ahead for training principals on the EVASS effectiveness-rating system that the system has adopted. By Oct. 13, she said, all principals will be trained. "We have adopted EVASS as our data tool," she said. EVASS is an acronym for a SAS software tool formally called Executive Virtual Assistant Support Services.

"What effective practices is that tool evaluating at this point? member John Tedesco asked. "You're trying to create strategies to help teachers" be more effective in working with students, Hargens said.

However, the administration does not plan to use the system to run an effectiveness index next year because it would take two weeks of a staff member's time during tight budget times, Hargens said. She added, however, that principals are using the data in each school to make decisions and shape help for students. The system has already paid for access through next July, the board was told.

4:20 p.m. – Five outside stairwells in a design for the school system's next high school in Rolesville became a central issue in discussions when the board got a briefing from Cherry Huffman Architects, the designer. Board member Debra Goldman said she was worried about safety issues and about maintenance. Architect Hal Bowen told her that the stairs would be safe, and Assistant Superintendent Joe Desormeaux said that interior stairwells are usually more expensive to maintain because of painting walls.

It was unclear after the presentation whether questions would take continued design work off the board's agenda for its voting meeting later on. The board is slated to approve the "schematic design." Facilities officials told the board that holding up design work for a month to get answers to members' questions would put the project behind schedule.

Member Anne McLaurin said she liked the design, "but it deserves more public attention" and time to comment.

3:55 p.m. – The board began with a presentation from Cherry Huffman Architects on the design for the district's next high school, known officially as H-6. The board has indicated it will call the school Rolesville High  School and rename Wake Forest-Rolesville High School to just Wake Forest High School.

The high school became contentious when a new board majority took office last November and voted in one its early actions to drop a location the previous board had chosen. The school will be a four-story structure and will have several common spaces because those are something the architects said they heard from the public were missing in many schools.

One way to get that space without enlarging the building was to put five stairways on the outside of the building, which will be clad with brick. Board Vice Chair Debra Goldman said she was concerned about "horrifying scenarios" that do not "take a great leap of imagination" with outside stairs during winter weather and with possibly 2,200 students using them..

"We've used exterior stairs before" on schools in the county, architect Hal Bowen said. The five exterior stairways are in addition to four indoor stairways, he said. He told Goldman that two of the stairways could probably be enclosed for an added $200,000. He noted, too, that exterior stairs are more open to view, making them less likely for any incidents.

If three outside stairways were enclosed and the other two made exit-only, it ought to address safety concerns, Bowen said.

The stairs will be covered and have screening alongside them, Bowen said. He said he was not sure that enclosing the stairs would be worth the extra expense, but could be done.

The building will have two passenger elevators and a service elevator for "cafe spaces" on different floors, Bowen explained.

Board member Keith Sutton asked if upper floors would be hot, but Bowen said controlling a four-story building was not unusual. The design calls for a water-cooled heating and air conditioning system, which is more efficient than the air-cooled systems usually used in schools, he added.

The school's design is intended to win LEED Silver compliance, a standard for environmentally friendly and energy-efficient architecture, Bowen told the board.

 "The new LEED rating system is really geared toward energy efficiency," Bowen said.

"You have done everything that you can do?" for efficiency, board member Anne McLaurin asked. Bowen said that the architects had done everything the project can afford to be nominated for the LEED Silver certification, but trying for a Gold rating would be prohibitively expensive.

Cherry Huffman has designed the renovation of Broughton High School in Raleigh, Middle Creek High School in Cary, the Wakefield Campus and Millbrook High School for the Wake County system.



Ron Gallagher, Web Editor

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