Wake County Schools

Issues for next decade dominate Wake school meeting

Posted October 19, 2010 6:22 p.m. EDT
Updated October 19, 2010 7:16 p.m. EDT

— Long-term, difficult issues -- how many schools will be needed and how to build them and how to assign students to them -- dominated discussions Tuesday for a Wake County Board of Education work session.

The board recently got projections from its staff that show the system will be short 60,000 desks short by the 2019-20 school year if it doesn't build 33 new schools. Tuesday, facilities chief Don Haydon asked the board to begin working on the assumptions it wants planners to make, such as whether to fill schools or keep the 95 percent capacity policy that allows for flexibility and unforeseen developments.

Those decisions, Haydon told the board, will influence when the district would have to ask county commissioners to approve a bond issue and how large it should. The system is designing three new schools that will use up money generated by a 2006 bond issue.

Also on the agenda Tuesday was a discussion of student assignment changes for 2011-12 prompted by the opening of a new elementary school and the much broader issue of how to develop an assignment policy for 2012-13 and beyond in the wake of a decision to drop socio-economic diversity and emphasize community-based assignments to keep students near their homes.

Board member Kevin Hill gave his colleagues a proposed process for reaching some agreement on how to go about the planning.

"There have been questions" in the media and through e-mail about "what the next steps will be" for student assignment for 2012-13 and beyond, Hill said, and he proposed a process "for how we can talk about what will come after 2011 and 12."

The assignment policy change came in a series of 5-4 votes that pitted four incumbent board members, including Hill, against four newcomers and Chairman Ron Margiotta, who cast the deciding ninth vote every time.

"If you look at a decision-making process, that's all this is for," Hill said as he handed out material. "It is incumbent upon us to find a way to come together," he told the other eight.

"We're not look at node numbers. We're not looking at addresses," Hill said of figuring out next steps. The board needs to identify what the members want to accomplish and what what is negotiable and what is not and what a plan would cost, he said.

The board will have to decide "what do we mean by community schools? What do we mean by equity?" Hill said.

"If we don't find a way to reach consensus," he warned, the board "will make bad decisions for our community."

A board committee had been moving ahead with a community-based plan that would establish more than a dozen attendance zones, but that process hit a roadblock Oct. 5 when member Debra Goldman, one of the five-member majority in earlier votes, offered a resolution saying the process needs more community and board involvement.

The other big-picture issue before the board is a crush of students predicted to come in the next decade despite a slower economy.

"The assumptions for buildings are all driven by programs," facilities chief Don Haydon told the board. Curriculum audits that suggest changes and student-assignment changes affect that, he said.

Soon, he said, the staff will send board members a draft plan that involves about 20 assumptions that go into planning for new schools and will need to know what the board wants.

"This really becomes the board's guidance to staff" for planning, he said of work-session discussions he hopes the board will have in the next two or three months. "What do we build a school around?" is the primary question, Haydon added.

The school system will use population planning data from the Institute for Transportation Planning and Research at N.C. State University because it is proving accurate, Haydon said. This year, he added, its projections were within one-tenth of 1 percent of actual numbers.

Chairman Ron Margiotta suggested that the next joint meeting of the school board and county commissioners is when the two boards should begin talking about a future bond issue.