Wake County Schools

Blog: Wake board discusses reassignments, committees

The board could not get enough votes to re-establish committees in time for a Finance Committee session set for Wednesday, but it approved a jerry-rigged action to let the meeting go ahead.

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Wake County Public School System
RALEIGH, N.C. — The Wake County Board of Education opened a work session before its monthly voting meeting on Tuesday, but Vice Chair Debra Goldman, presiding over the informal meeting, said most discussion about controversial student reassignments for the 2011-12 year would be at another work session next week. That didn't prove completely true, however.

The board had a brief work-session agenda and then planned to go into a closed-door meeting to discuss unspecified issues. The public meeting Tuesday came a few hours after Chairman Ron Margiotta, Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens and board attorney Ann Majestic met with U.S. Department of Education officials who are probing a complaint that the district is resegregating schools through adoption of a community-based assignment policy.

9:35 p.m. – The board tried to reverse a policy change from September, when it abolished its standing committees, including Finance and Policy. Chairman Ron Margiotta had asked for the change originally because, he said, committees were not narrowing down what issues reached the board.

The board approved bringing back committees last month, but re-instituting a policy requires two votes. The Finance Committee was scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon, and delays proposed by members John Tedesco and Chris Malone would prevent that. They had said the group should wait until Margiotta could be present. He was absent Tuesday evening.

Member Keith Sutton, who chaired the Finance Committee before, said a meeting had been put off last month, and the panel needs to begin meeting.

The group had a revised policy that member Deborah Prickett reflected changes Margiotta wanted, but it had to waive a requirement for second reading and a second vote in order for it to take effect immediately.

Vice Chair Debra Goldman objected to language saying the board chair would set a committee meeting schedule, though the committee chair could cancel a meeting.

Sutton said, "We do have some information from the state," and Finance needs to consider that and other issues.

Member John Tedesco asked if the committee could meet anyway, but attorney Ann Majestic explained that there was no policy creating committees.

Tedesco offered a motion to have the former committee chaired by Sutton meet Wednesday while the larger policy was tabled for another meeting.

Sutton then suggested changing the whole policy language to add a Policy Committee and to let the committee chair, not the board chair, set the committee meeting schedule. The board approved it, but not by a wide enough margin to put it into effect right away. That put the board back to Tedesco's patchwork approach, and the board approved it.

The revised policy that came to the board Tuesday included new language that suggested the board would have to set the agendas for committees, though members were unclear what Margiotta intended.

The discussion brought titters from some board critics who remained in the audience as the panel neared the end of its meeting.

8:50 p.m. – The district staff recommended and the board approved having the Wake system keep for 2010-11 a requirement dropped by the state that students need to pass end-of-grade tests in the 3rd, 5th and 8th grades and five end-of-course tests to graduate from high school. The state, Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens told the board, did not think the tests had improved student performance. Wake educators, she said, felt that it would send a wrong message to students to drop the tests this year after the year began with them in place.

Member John Tedesco asked if Hargens knew how many students were moved up on waivers from principals if they did not pass the tests. "I wish we got the kids proficient before we passed them along," he said.

"I applaud the state board (of education) for really reviewing a policy" to determine if it was working, member Deborah Prickett said. Studies have shown that holding students back can harm them socially, and promotion patterns did not change with the tests, she said.

Wake should move toward a national test of what students know, Prickett added.

"I have no problems with trying to stick with this policy for another year or two," member Kevin Hill, a former teacher and principal said, but he added that high school teachers do not always get all the information middle-school teachers send with a student or do not have time to explore it.

8:30 p.m. – The board voted to apply for an Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Program (JROTC) program at Enloe High School. The system currently has Navy, Air Force and Army JROTC programs at other schools, and an application is pending for a Marine JROTC program at Garner High School, the staff reported to the board.

Member John Tedesco said he was concerned about how having a JROTC program at Enloe would impact efforts to have equitable program opportunities across the county. Enloe already has an International Baccalaureate magnet program, including 12 languages, to attract students, member Deborah Prickett said.

Tedesco said that Enloe's having JROTC plus its other programs might put other JROTC schools at a disadvantage.

The staff said the application was being sought now because the Army has openings for JROTC programs. There is not a specific time to apply.

Member Chris Malone said JROTC programs are different from other special programs because they involve youth who want to serve their country.

8:15 p.m. – The board voted to name the gym at Pleasant Union Elementary School for Edward Clayton McLean, who taught at the school for 17 years. He also coached basketball at Broughton High School and Cary Middle School and at the collegiate level.
8:10 p.m. – The district's Audit Committee, which officials said they believe is the only one in North Carolina and one of the few in the nation, reported on a review conducted by Cherry, Bekaert and Holland. The audit looks at the district's financial activities and condition and make recommendations if any issues are found.

"It went very, very smoothly this year," said Eddie T. Burke, a partner in the auditing firm. "Our timelines were met" for doing the audit on time, he said. "Management had closed out the books correctly" and no changes were suggested, Burke said. The district received what is called "an unqualified report," meaning the auditors had no problems or need to note issues.

Looking at statistics in the report, the staff noted that funds received by the district dropped $201 million last year, the first drop in 10 years.

The school system is the second-largest employer in the county after state government, the staff also noted.

The audit found that some job openings in the system did not appear on the state Employment Security Commission's website because the jobs were submitted monthly. Now, the board was told, openings are submitted weekly to make sure they are not closed before they can appear.

The system also requires bids on purchases at lower levels than the state requires, the staff report said.

One issue that will confront the board is a policy that says funds over a certain level should be returned to the county. The policy was made at a time when revenues from the county were rising, the staff reported.

7:25 p.m. – The  board opened its public-comment period with remarks from Karey Harwood of Raleigh. "Equity does not mean treating everyone the same. It means treating everyone fairly," she said. There has been an effort to hurt magnet schools, she said, but equity requires expanding offerings.

Christine Kushner of Raleigh told the board she supported reinstatement of standing board committees, a proposal it was to consider giving final approval later in the evening. Since the board abolished its standing committees earlier in the year, Kushner said, there has been more secrecy about board decision-making.

"Please consider this a request for disclosure" of minutes of a December meeting, Greg Flynn of Raleigh told the board. He also asked the board to avoid mistakes of the past that concentrated minority students in Southeast Raleigh.

Michele Goldman criticized the board's effort to bar discussion Tuesday evening of student assignment. "Tonight's censorship" is another effort to suppress public discussion of student assignment, she charged.

Mary Kelley of Raleigh, who said she is school parent, told the board that it has spent little time addressing academic achievement. "Please show us how converting schools back to a traditional calendar against the wishes of a majority of the parents" saves money, she said. She asked members John Tedesco, Chris Malone and Deborah Prickett why they seek to accelerate implementation of a new student-assignment policy that does not use diversity as a criterion.

Anne Sherron, a citizen member of the board's Student Assignment Committee, gave members information on how many students in each of their districts attend magnet schools. She referred to a "movable middle" group of parents and students who seek to go to schools outside their home areas, but said that some proposed assignment changes can reduce voluntary magnet attendance.

Adrienne Lumpkin of Raleigh reminded the board that magnet schools were created as a desegregation tactic after city and county schools merged in the 1980s. Now, she said, demand has exceeded capacity. She also said that moving "hundreds" of Southeast Raleigh children away from their current schools was bad.

Amy Lee of Raleigh criticized the board for trying to bar comments on attendance, reducing speakers' time to two minutes from the previous three and shifting to one meeting a month where comments are taken. "I'm not sure what country you think this is, but the last time I checked, it was the United States of America," Lee said.

Debbie Biesack of Fuquay-Varina said that community division over school policy will make it hard to gain public support for any bond issue to build more schools. The board has made reference to a bond issue because of predicted shortages starting in 2012-13, though none is on the table now.

At that point, Vice Chair Debra Goldman told the audience that the board had changed its comment rule for the evening since it was posted yesterday on the district's website. She had read remarks earlier that she said sought to avoid discussion of particular reassignments.

Susan Evans of Apex, who said she is an accountant, spoke of the district receiving a "F" on an evaluation of fiscal matters. She also criticized the installation of modular classrooms at Lacy Elementary School shortly after it was renovated, she blamed board-ordered transfers for overcrowding.

Monserrat Alvarez of Raleigh said she was a Wake schools graduate and she criticized "empty words" saying the board's new community-based assignment policy is not attempting to resegregate schools. "You need to listen to the students.... Enough is enough," she said. "We will not go back. We will not wind up like Charlotte-Mecklenburg."

Raul Arce of Raleigh asked "what kind of decision is this" to reassign potentially 6,000 students next year. 

Sanyu Gichie, an Enloe High School senior, spoke to the board about the effects of poverty on student achievement and cited information from Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, which also dropped a diversity policy. "Please do not model our schools" after those, she said.

Lisbeth Fuentes, a Southeast Raleigh High School senior, said students fear reassignments will make her school overcrowded and force out its magnet programs, which she said prompted her to go there. "I am worried about my sibling" and the opportunities for other students, she said.

Jim Martin of Apex, a North Carolina State University professor and a regular speaker at board meetings, derided what he said were arguments that "forced busing" in Wake. The system has what he termed "one of the largest voluntary busing programs" anywhere.

Marvin Pittman, a former state Board of Education member and a participant in the board's Disadvantaged Student Education Task Force, ran through a list of activities and resources that he said are needed for academically successfully schools. "Pretty is not on the list," he said. Good curriculum and good teachers are needed, he said, when the system opens Walnut Creek Elementary School next year.

Amy Womble of Cary, listed a series of questions, asking the board if they had made all decisions made on facts and judgment. She asked them if they had studied facts and figures presented to them, saying they had been shown that high-poverty schools don't work.

Diana Bader of Cary said the board is going to create more "segregated, high poverty" schools, and "it's unconscionable, it's irresponsible and you shouldn't be doing it."

The Community United Church of Christ adopted a resolution last month urging diverse schools, Cyrus King of Raleigh told the board. The board seems to be on the verge of creating a segregated system, however, he said.

John Gilbert of Raleigh said he wanted to thank the board for correcting a mistake of instituting a "zero tolerance" policy instituted when he was a school board member. He also praised the board for encouraging students to take algebra in middle school. He urged the board to keep county commissioners out of school policy. He also criticized the news media for referring to Democratic and Republican factions on the board when elections are non-partisan. Republican backers supported the four board members elected in 2009.

Bill Lynch of Apex said, "No one in this community should be fearful of a predicted return to the '60s. That's not going to happen." An issue in schools is that "no one knows how to teach self-motivation," including him, he said. "Problems aren't with the teachers and the principals," Gilbert said.

Ilina Ewen of Raleigh, who said she was born in Calcutta, said she wanted her sons to find a rich, diverse school environment. She said she wants them to learn that "having a brown face isn't a mark of shame."

Tama Bouncer of Raleigh told the board that the "voices of teachers" are missing from assignment discussions. A survey of about 500 found that they believe diversity has been good for the Wake County schools. Research has shown, she said, that having students from poor neighborhoods attend "middle-class schools" helps them.

Lynn Edmonds of Raleigh told Goldman "you probably don't" want to hear what she had to say, drawing chuckles, after Goldman had asked her to wait while Goldman spoke to the board's attorney. "I wanted to hear what you have to say," Goldman had told her. "We need to the board to lead and advocate for all of our schools and all of our students," Edmonds told the board.

Goldman called for a listed speaker named "John Doe," sounding skeptical, and no one appeared.

Marcia Timmel, a seventh-grade teacher at Garner Middle School, warned the board about the harm larger classes will do as budget cuts take away teachers. She has an academically gifted class with 38 students in it, she said, and predictions are for cuts in the teaching staffs in North Carolina next year. "When you cut teachers, it's the kids who bleed, she said. "We're heading toward a (budget) iceberg, and you're all arguing about who's going to get the ocean view," she said. "You're my representative," Timmel told Tedesco, but if you were my class, you'd have lunch detention tomorrow" for his actions as a board member.

6:07 p.m. – The board opened its voting meeting with Vice Chair Debra Goldman presiding. Chairman Ron Margiotta was away for a family emergency, she told the board earlier. Goldman said Margiotta had been called away to a "family emergency" before the work session, and he did not return before it ended. Goldman told the audience that "Mr. and Mrs. Margiotta are in our prayers."

The  board had issued a directive before the meeting that public comment for the meeting could not be on student assignment, and two Raleigh police officers were present as usual. Arrests at past meetings have come during public comment portions.

Goldman asked people to withhold comment on assignments until public hearings the board will hold in January. It set tentative dates earlier Tuesday. Several people in the audience were holding signs about assignments, however. 

"Don't abandon students in SE Raleigh," one sign read. "Help brown and black students succeed. No segregation. Yes to quality education," said another.

5:05 p.m. – The board voted to go into closed session for confidential discussions about personnel and student issues and to consult with attorney Ann Majestic about a legal case and to talk about land bargaining.
5 p.m. – Board attorney Ann Majestic gave the board a rundown on proposed policy changes about gang-related issues. One important issues is avoiding gang accusations against students who wear a common insignia that a gang has taken as its symbol. She gave the example of a UNC logo. The policy change would make it clear that the policy affected only students who intended to show gang insignia.

The law requires that students have clear notice of what is considered gang-related and is forbidden, and gang colors and symbols are ever-changing, Majestic said. The new policy refers to ongoing consultations with police to try to determine what should be barred.

4:55 p.m. – The board set Feb. 4 for a four-hour discussion of ways the divided panel might be able to find consensus on planning to implement its community-based assignment policy for the 2012-13, a step member Kevin Hill had requested several works ago. It also set a session on Feb. 9.
4:45 p.m. – The district staff gave the board proposals for public hearings on whatever 2011-12 assignment plan is decided. The first would be Jan. 6 at Southeast Raleigh High School, a second on Jan. 10 at Cary High School, a third on Jan. 11 at Millbrook High and a fourth on Jan. 19 at Garner High School. Members Keith Sutton and John Tedesco asked to move the first session from Jan. 6 to Jan. 20.

Member Chris Malone asked for a session at Heritage High School on Jan. 6 or 13.

The staff is also proposing board work sessions on Jan. 25 and 27 in a bid to have a final vote by the board's first meeting in February.

A planned visit Jan. 12-14 by an accrediting organization that is investigating the district's change in assignment policy made the decisions more complex because that group wants to meet with board members.

4:35 p.m. – "This board majority ... issued a directive on community-based schools," member Keith Sutton, and the board followed it. "This board ought to enforce the directive that's on the table" and stay as close as possible to only necessary transfers for 2011-12.

"We ought to call a spade a spade and put a face on the students we're talking about," Sutton said. "We sat here in this room this morning" and heard about a federal Department of Education investigation. "Moving 6,000 African American kids" in the face of the investigation "would be stupid," Sutton said.

"Certainly the families in Southeast Raleigh have not asked for these moves" that would put students from that area back in schools there, Sutton said.

There also has been concern that returning students to Southeast Raleigh from other schools will present a problem because all schools there are magnet schools, and they would lose seats now used for that program."

"These proposed moves have to happen in accord with policy," member John Tedesco said, and that is not affected by the directive to do only 

"I'm asking for hundreds of the poorest kids who live in the poorest nodes of Garner to come home," and parents there have asked him to see that their students can "go to school across the street," Tedesco said.

Growth director Laura Evans told the board that her department needs clarification from them on some issues in reassignment, including what the board means by "high needs" students. That is one factor that plays into deciding how to recommend transfers, she said.

"These are requests from parents," member Deborah Prickett said. "I'm real familiar with my area ... and most of the changes here would only affect my area.... They are the parents I have talked to most."

Member Deborah Prickett said she does not know about skin color when she gets e-mails from parents who want changes.

"Maybe they know and maybe they don't know" skin color when parents request that students be transferred out of schools, but it "is our responsibility to know," Sutton said.

"My concern is that some of these ... appear to be requests to move students out of areas," Goldman said. She said she wants to know if parents asked to have their students moved out of schools or if some parents asked that other parents' students be moved away.

Goldman's concern is that some of the changes are "not that 'we want you to move our kids. We want you to move their kids,'" Goldman said.

"You noted clearly that some nodes in the discussion were not part of Year 3 but were part of Year 2 that we ran out of time on," member John Tedesco told Goldman. "In Year 2 of the assignment plan," Tedesco said, the "bulk of 24,000" students were reassigned.

Members Anne McLaurin, who was on the board that made the three-year plan disagreed.

"As a board, we're going to discuss these changes," Tedesco said. He added that all requested changes needed to be considered.

Goldman asked growth director Laura Evans if it's possible to know how many students would be involved in the transfers and if seats would be available. Evans said all the numbers would be presented next week.

I"m asking that we not bring" transfers to the board's Dec. 14 meeting if they were not already proposed before a series of public workshops on 2011-12 transfers, member Keith Sutton said.

The board agreed in an informal "thumbs-up" vote to go along, knocking out half of a staff list that combined recommended and requested moves. The decision left the staff trying to understand what the board wanted. Apparently nodes proposed for moves in Year 2 of the district three-year assignment plan but never acted on will be on the table next week.

Prickett wanted to know when discussions about underutilized schools would be held, and that prompted more debate about what should be debated. "If we mark all of these off, I don't know how we're going to fix it," she said.

The staff told Sutton in response to a question that its proposals addressed only schools that are more than at 112 percent of capacity, not underutilized schools.

"I think in this budget time, we owe ... it to citizens to take a look at schools" that are under capacity," Prickett said, and she asked that "under-enrolled or under-capacity" schools be part of next week's talks.

Some of those schools involve nodes that Sutton asked to cut out of the talks. The staff told members that it does not have a definition for "under-enrolled" schools to compare with its 112 percent for overcrowding.

Tedesco suggested that the board take up schools whose enrollments are over 122 percent of capacity or under 85 percent, then the number was changed to 75 percent, then to 80 percent as members debated, then back to 85 percent. Tedesco proposed 80 percent and that failed. An exasperated-sounding member Chris Malone then proposed 75 percent, and that won..

3:45 p.m. – Goldman asked if other assignment committee members will be able to suggest changes because not all of them knew before last week's meeting that they'd be asked. Each board member named a citizen representative to the assignment committee, and the three who offered lists of requested transfers last week were named by supporters of dumping the diversity policy.

"How to we make sure" that an overall new assignment policy represents everyone in the county, Goldman asked the staff. Silence greeted her question.

The board also has indicated informally that it will hold a work session requested by member Kevin Hill on trying to find consensus on how to form a new plan. It was unclear if the majority members consider the Dec. 14 work session to be that meeting.

Goldman asked if some of the transfers on the list can be separated according to a rubric that considered several factors. Half of the 12 pages of proposed transfers showed staff ratings using those factors. The other half showed only "source" and had not been evaluated.

3:30 p.m. – Growth director Laura Evans ran down the staff's proposals for transfers in 2011-12, which is the third year of a three-year plan that a previous board designed in a bid to quell complaints about how frequently students were being moved.

The staff proposals, driven largely by the opening of Walnut Creek Elementary School next year, have been coming before the board for several weeks. At a Student Assignment Committee meeting last week, three citizen members asked to have dozens more assignment "nodes" – the small areas the district uses to assign students.

The staff used "stability, proximity, growth and other factors that may be relevant" in devising the proposals, Facilities Director Don Haydon told the board.

The proposals immediately drew debate between opponents of dropping the previous policy favoring socioeconomic diversity and John Tedesco. architect of efforts to implement the new community-based policy.

"We as a board are required" to make an annual plan," Tedesco told members Kevin Hill and Keith Sutton, who asked that the board not adopt any changes for 2011-12 that they said were out of compliance with policy.

Tedesco said he not only thought all the changes should be made, but that "several are missing from this list that we should consider." Member Chris Malone backed Tedesco's stand. Both were in the majority of the 5-4 vote to change the policy.

The staff showed the sources of requests for transfers of nodes, including board members, parents at recent public meetings and citizen members of the Student Assignment Committee.





Ron Gallagher, Web Editor

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