Wake County Schools

Blog: Wake school board displays deep split on student assignment process

In its last item in a long work session, the Wake County Board of Education made it clear that a split over how to assign students to schools runs deep between two board factions.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Wake County school board convened a work session Tuesday with an agenda that touched on every major issue facing the state's largest school system.

Board members were slated to get a briefing on the outlook so far for the 2011-12 budget and the current-year's plan, facilities use and planning assumptions that the administration is making, and discussions about how to restart the stalled process of implementing a new student-assignment policy.

Assignment plans for 2012-13, after the current three-year plan ends, had been under way based on a policy change that dropped socio-economic diversity as a criterion for assigning the system's 143,000 students to schools.

That stopped after one board member who supported the policy change objected to how the process was going. Since then, Kevin Hill, one of four members who opposed the change, has pressed the board to settle on basic assumptions both sides can share and to define terms used in the discussion.

The system, whose 2010-11 budget totaled $1.4 billion, likely faces tough decisions as one-time federal money disappears and state support is tested in the face of a multibillion-dollar state budget shortfall.

Below is a live blog of Tuesday's meeting:

6:20 p.m. – "We've got plenty of work to do on this 'planning assumptions'" item on the agenda, Chairman Ron Margiotta said, then turned the floor over to member and former chairman Kevin Hill.

"The public expects their elected officials to do the heavy lifting and find consensus" on assignment issues, Hill said.

The board's Student Assignment Committee needs input from more people, including principals, teachers and parents.

"This needs to be done in a board work session dedicated to this alone," Hill said. 

"We have a 6200 policy, and we also have an R&P that has not been updated," Margiotta said. That might be good to define first, he added.

Margiotta said Hill's issues should go to the Student Assignment Committee for discussion, then come back to the board.

"You've participated in the kind of meetings I'm talking about, where we devote a whole day to one topic," Hill told Margiotta. He said any assignment plan that comes out of a process that does not have consensus will not work. Hill called for all board members to handle reassignment because "that's one of those issues that transcends the committee level."

"We have an exceptionally busy schedule" in January and February, Margiotta said, then listed the topics and meetings the board will deal with.

"I think it's important for the board to work together," member Debra Goldman said. "That's all I'll say."

"I think the board needs to look at overturning" an Oct. 5 vote that stopped the assignment-planning process, member Deborah Prickett said.

"We've already hashed out a lot of those things" that Hill raised, member John Tedesco said. Voting 5-4 to have a discussion would be starting without consensus, he and member Chris Malone said.

"I don't see how we could come to consensus" when the votes are all 5-4, Malone said. "All it's doing is slowing things down" to talk about trying to get nine-member consensus.

"People were screaming about" a too-fast process board process on reassignment, but no one objected to the idea that an outside consultant hired by the Chamber of Commerce may produce a plan in 60 or 90 days. Michael Alves is working on a community-based assignment policy outside the school system.

"I cannot imagine not wanting to hear the concerns of other board members," Goldman said.

"We'll hear them," Malone said. He said the process that was derailed had planned to hear from the public at meetings later.

"If we're not going to go about it trying to build consensus for the people of Wake County, so be it," Hill said.

Hill had said his "thumb didn't count" in informal board decisions, which prompted Tedesco to "take an offense at that."

"Sharing and voting are two different things," Hill said after Tedesco said that he had invited all board members to participate in his committee meetings. Tedesco chairs the Student Assignment Committee.

Malone charged that the previous board majority never sought consensus, and he sees "consensus" as a substitute for "debate."

"I think we need a mediator," member Anne McLaurin said. Malone said, "We sit here and we work together, and I like you, and I mean that. But we disagree."

Malone added, "We don't need a mediator. We need to live with what we come up with."

"What we've been doing in these work sessions" is talking about the same topic, Prickett said. The board seems to need to have all members on all committees, she said. "Every board member ought to be on every committee," she said.

"The only way to" have the county accept an assignment plan is to have all nine board members involved in building it," Goldman said. "Hopefully, it will be more than a 5-4 vote," but even if the same split continues, all members will have had a part in the process. "This issue is so huge" that it is overriding all other discussions, she said.

Margiotta called for "a thumbs-up on Mr. Hill's proposal. OK, it passes. Meeting adjourned," he said, leaving a debate behind over what it was the board had agreed to do.

Members finally agreed they had agreed to have a work session on trying to find consensus around an assignment-planning process.

6 p.m. – The board members returned from their closed session, which they had said likely would be shorter.
4:35 p.m. – The board went into a closed session, which is permitted for personnel, legal and a few other matters. Members do not need to specify what is being discussed.
4:05 p.m. –The schools staff held its first community meeting Monday evening on 2011-12 assignment changes driven by the opening of two new schools and some overcrowding, growth manager Laura Evans.

"We're going to come back to you with a final proposal for assignments" at the Dec. 7 board meeting after hearing from parents at three more meetings tonight, Thursday night and next Monday night.

Parents will be told about assignments and about board hearings in January, and the staff will ask for a final vote at the board's first Februrary meeting, Evans said.

For the new Walnut Creek Elementary School, Evans presented new transfer numbers based on actual attendance on the 20th day of this school year at Aversboro, Barwell Road, East Garner, Hodge Road and Timber drive elementary schools. All except East Garner show lower numbers of students to be transferred or no more transfers as of now.

Evans said she wants to hear from parents at the other community meetings before coming to the board with new proposals.

Evans gave the board dozens of other small assignment changes to reflect information from principals about changes going on in their areas, keeping some neighborhoods together and other issues.

"Following Policy 6200, we're trying to bring 'em home" to local schools when needing to reassign students, Evans said. Policy 6200 is the district student-assignment rule, which formerly included socio-economic diversity and now, after a series of 5-4 votes on the board, stresses a community-schools philosophy.

Overall, however, the district will enter the third year of a three-year assignment plan made under the old policy and intended to minimize transfers.

During discussions about Walnut Creek, the board and Evans traded fine points about assignment nodes and the vacancy rate at several schools, including Barwell Road.

"We're really thinking (about) the least number of moves we have to make, for stability," Evans said, and she stressed that administrators are not proposing final decisions yet.

In dealing with overcrowding, Evans said, the staff has focused on schools that are at 112 percent or more of their design capacity. Possible solutions include making a crowded school year-round, which allows for more students in the same building; reducing the number of students admitted by request to traditional-calendar schools, capping enrollment, and adding trailer classrooms.

"This is not even close to being your final proposal?" Chairman Ron Margiotta asked Evans. "Uh-uh," she said, repeating that three more public meetings are to be held.

Any discussion of assignment and transfers brings a deluge of questions from board members, who want to know about any actions being considered in each of their districts. Even as Margiotta tried to move onto the next item on the agenda, member John Tedesco spoke up with another analysis he would like Evans and her staff to do.

3:30 p.m. – Facilities boss Don Haydon gave the board the Facilities Department's 2010-11 Facilities Utilization Report, a look at the current use of buildings and expected school capacities in coming years. And he noted that no matter how bad any news he had could be, it would look good coming after finance director David Neter's bleak report on the scenario for the 2011-12 budget.

Haydon has told the board before that growth projections show the system would need to build 33 new schools by 2020, not counting two schools that will open in fall 2011 and a new high school to open in 2013.

Haydon delivered an extensive document that looked at classrooms, trailers in use or available for the future and other data. Haydon called his report the "optimum" situation, which drew a retort from member Debra Goldman that "I have trouble with the term 'optimal' because in my mind, the optimal number of mobiles would be zero."

"I won't argue with you on that!" Haydon said

"We're re-looking at the enrollment patterns now based on '20th day'" figures, Haydon said, but he still expects the district to begin to be short of classroom space in mid-decade.

"We're always behind the eight-ball, always playing catch-up," Goldman said, and she asked Haydon for a presentation on Wake's options in coming years, including perhaps leasing space.

Chairman Ron Margiotta said it is important for the board to be thinking if or when it would need to go to voters, if county commissioners approve, with a bond referendum for construction.

"There are a lot of options," Haydon agreed, and a new report based on how many students were in school on the 20th day of this school year will give another picture of what may be needed.

2:50 p.m. – David Neter, the district's finance director, said his staff is assuming that state funding will be the same in creating a "business case" for the 2011-12 year even though he and the members know that will not happen.

The state Department of Public Instruction has not decided what it will tell Gov. Beverly Perdue, who has asked all agencies to show how they would cut 5, 10 and 15 percent. Conversations with DPI officials suggest they will show plans only for 5 and 10 percent, Neter told the board.

The staff also is planning on again getting flat funding from the county commissioners, though no one knows what will happen there.

The staff will plan on cuts anyway, he said. There is about $27 million in one-time federal money that must be used for personnel costs at the school level, Neter said. That will help offset some of the $40 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ARRA) funding that disappears after this year.

"We're playing with semantics perhaps" in looking at some state funds that "should" be restored from earlier cuts, Neter said. He stressed that no one knows if that money has any chance of coming back.

"We are a human-resource-based business," Neter said, and 90 percent of district spending is for people.

To dramatize the size of the problem the board probably will face, Neter said that a $50 million cut in state funding would be the same size as 1,000 employees at an average salary-and-benefit cost of $50,000.

Neter noted that the system already had plans for dealing with the $40 million ARRA reductions, but large problems remain.

The board got copies of a report in which the Center for Public Education assessed the effect of the recession on schools.

"Wiggle room is all but removed, if not totally removed" now for avoiding classroom cuts, Neter said. other districts have had to deal before that Wake could face in the 2011-12 year. Some cuts in those included increasing class sizes and laying off teachers and counselors, cutting courses not required for graduation and going to half-day kindergartens, which is not allowed in North Carolina.

"We've maybe bought ourselves a year" by cutting in other areas, Neter said, but he warned that no one can say for sure what Wake might have to do for 2011-12.

The impact of a recession on governments usually lasts for "at least" two years after the recession officially ends, Neter warned.

"The first step of a leader is to define reality, and I believe that is what we are doing for next year," Neter said. "We can do everything possible to protect the classroom ... but to say we can protect the classroom with the magnitude of state cuts we're facing" is not possible, he added.

2:25 – David Holtzkom, who heads evaluation efforts for the system, brought the board information it had requested on the district's achievement compared with other districts.

Wake collected publicly available data for four other school districts and the state as a whole, Holtzkom said. A chart he gave the board included Cumberland, Forsyth, Guilford and Mecklenburg counties.

In almost all tests, Holtzkom said, Wake scored better in student proficiency as measured by state tests. "There's an important difference" in how far ahead Wake students were than the next-highest district, he said.

With scores broken out for end-of-grade tests on which students passed both math and reading tests, the top-scoring district varied, Holtzkom said. The best scores varied for high school end-of-course tests, he noted, with Wake and Mecklenburg trading the first and second places across eight subjects.

In high school, Mecklenburg did better for black, Hispanic, multiracial and economically disadvantaged students for the 2009-10 year, his tables showed.

In Cumberland County, the county school system did better for elementary Hispanic students than any of the others. Holtzkom said teachers who have worked there attributed the good showing to Fort Bragg's presence and the county's having had significant Hispanic immigration earlier than other counties did.

Member Keith Sutton said an outside study showed that Wake had a 44 percent graduation rate for black make students, which he said pointed up the need to focus on helping that group succeed.

"I think Keith's point is spot-on," member John Tedesco said, but he asked if there is a way to account for how some counties are doing better than Wake with significantly larger populations of student groups with challenges.

Holtzkom said part of the explanation could be that Mecklenburg had a higher per-student expenditure for the whole system than did Wake, but member Debra Goldman recalled earlier discussions about how a system-wide average can be misleading.

"I would have to think logic says there has to be something else going on here," Tedesco said, and others suggested that Mecklenburg focused some spending heavily on groups that often do not do well on the tests.

Holtzkom also gave the board a table showing comparisons with nine school systems around the country. The list was based on a consultant's recommendation for comparisons, he said, and differed from places Wake has traditionally used.

"We're presenting the data. We're not defending the data," said Holtzkom, who is the district's testing statistics expert. Most of the information came from districts' websites, he said, but it provides some basis for comparison.

Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens said the staff is collecting strategic plans from the districts in the table because they are reported to be doing innovative things.

Member Keith Sutton suggested data from the Great Schools Council, which includes large districts in large areas. Holtzkom said the staff is "very familiar" with the group, but thought that some of its members, like Chicago and New York City systems, are not good comparisons.

2:00 p.m. – The state decided to take away requirements for students to pass end-of-grade and end-of-course tests to be promoted, effective this school year, Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens reported. She said the board could impose tougher standards, however.

"We started the 10-11 school year with parents and students" expecting they will have to be proficient, Hargens said. With the state's decision in October to drop test results, one argument is that students might not take the tests seriously in the spring.

"What we need is direction for what to tell our schools," Hargens told the board. "We would like to know what the board is feeling" about going along with the change or keeping test proficiency as a Wake requirement.

There is a process for appealing for promotion based on other student work and teachers' judgments, Hargens said, but  that can be cumbersome. That is how principals make decisions, she said, and state law makes them the ones who have to rule.

Senior directors polled principals about their feelings and heard arguments for and against keeping the tests, Hargens said. The administration suggests keeping the rule in place for this school year unless the board says otherwise, she added.

1:45 p.m. – Staff opened the board's meeting with a rundown on the requirements for supplemental education services (SES), which are required when schools miss their goals under No Child Left Behind for three years in a row. The school system uses federal money to provide tutors, and parents of students who meet economic standards can pick among therm.

This year, 3,494 students in kindergarten through fifth grade are eligible for SES in 10 schools, the staff reported. The state determines how much the district has to spend on each student, and this school year that number is $1.360, coordinator Willie Webb told the board.

The board had several questions about the program at a meeting last week, when it was approving contracts for SES.

Board Chairman Ron Margiotta asked if the district might be able to find providers – non-profit and profit organizations that supply tutors – who would work for less than $1,360 per child.

The state has established who can seek the work, and the allotment for each year is public, Webb answered, and providers always price their services at the maximum allowed.

Parents have responsibilities in the program, Webb said. They have to communicate with the tutoring providers, have to sign the students' education plans, and may have to get students to the tutors because not all work is done at schools. For example, she said, parents might choose to use a provider who offers the service at a place where the students go already for after-school care.

"I have some significant concerns" about how services are being delivered to "some of our neediest students," member John Tedesco said. He said an evaluation done two years ago showed that 60 percent of the students who got remedial services had scored at Level 3 or 4 on the four-level end-of-grade tests in math. The students should have been getting enrichment instead, Tedesco said.

Level 4 is the highest in the state's standardized test system.

Because of flawed assessments for math, Tedesco told Webb, providers in Durham County have begun to do differentiated instruction – teaching different students in the program at different levels based on how they did on tests.

Wake should be doing follow-up evaluations "to be sure we're getting the best bang for our buck to give kids the best opportunity we can give them," Tedesco said.

The system tried to make sure every student gets what he or she needs, Webb said. Some providers do not seem to be as good as others some years, she said, but only the state Department of Public Instruction can remove them from the approved list. The district communicates concerns to DPI, she said, but cannot effect changes.

"There's a form we complete on a yearly basis," Webb said, and "independent monitors" also report to DPI, she said.

Member Anne McLaurin asked Webb how she would design the SES program if she had that power.

She said she would want accurate assessment data for each child and individualized learning plans.

Kevin Hill, a board member and retired high school principal, added that the need is for both accurate and current assessment data. "At one of my schools" in the past, he said, teachers in the district were hired for the remedial work, not outside firms. 

"I firmly agree," Tedesco said. "Knowing what we know now," Webb wouldn't get the level of data she wants, he added.

"I have more faith in Dr. (Donna) Hargens," interim superintendent, and her staff, Tedesco said. The outside providers are not equipped to provide differentiated instruction, he added.

"You cut out the middle man" if the district could run its own program with its own teachers, Hill said, and Tedesco agreed.

Tedesco gave colleagues an evaluation done in 2007 of the 2004-05 school year for one school, and that was the only one available, he said. Staff said that was the only school in the Title 1 program at the time, but evaluations can be supplied for other schools now.

Margiotta asked for more information later, including how Wake might provide the services itself.



Ron Gallagher, Web Editor

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