Wake County Schools

Wake school board discusses student assignment

For the first time since selecting a new superintendent, the Wake County Board of Education is meeting Tuesday to discuss student assignment, one of two pivotal issues the board will face in 2011.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — As many as 34 schools in the state’s largest school system could be over-enrolled by 120 percent or more by the 2013-14 school year, and another 18 schools could be under-enrolled by 75 percent or less, according to numbers provided to Wake County school board members Tuesday.

And that could mean new challenges for the district, already looking at how to best assign students to meet the demands of a shrinking school system budget.

Laura Evans, senior director of the school system’s growth and planning department, told board members that in addition to having to balance out school enrollments across the district, the projected figures could lead to more magnet schools, changing the grade configuration at some schools, using more modular units and other ideas.

Board chairman Ron Margiotta said he supports looking into grade configuration changes, opening schools that serve children from third to fifth grades, or kindergarten to second grade, for example.

"I have been asking for this for a hundred years," he said. "We have always been so rigid in saying it is necessary to have an elementary, middle and high school. No reason why you cannot adapt and change as the changes are needed."

Enrollments across the county vary widely. Lake Myra Middle School and Smith Elementary School are estimated to be at nearly half capacity in 2013, while Garner High School and Leesville Middle are bursting at the seams. Leesville Middle is expected to be 190 percent capacity.

"There is no way to build our way out of it now or in the near future or perhaps in the distant future, so to speak," said board member Keith Sutton.

The projected figures come as the school system is deciding what changes to make to the 2011-12 student assignment plan – the final phase of a three-year plan that was adopted in 2008.

Staff members proposed numerous changes Tuesday, potentially affecting the placement of 4,703 students (2,625 elementary, 1,103 middle, and 975 high school students) in the school system. No decision on those recommendations is expected until after several scheduled public input meetings – the first set for Jan. 10.

School board members and staff have spent hours in discussions in recent months realigning students for next year, a process that is separate from the longer-term plan to redo how students are assigned to schools across the county.

The board majority voted in February to focus student assignment on geography rather than economic diversity, but progress on that policy change stalled in October when board members could not agree on how to proceed.

Budget recommendations coming in

One topic not on the board’s agenda Tuesday was what to do about the school system’s estimated $70 million to $100 million budget shortfall for the next school year.

The district has been taking suggestions from the public on its website on how to make cuts, and the board released a 159-page document with public comment and suggestions Monday.

The tension over busing for diversity and neighborhood schools was evident. Many, many people suggested that there are savings to be had by only busing students to nearby schools and forcing those who live within a mile or so to walk.

There is also a great deal of tension between advocates for and against year-round schools. Some who wrote in advocated for all schools to go year-round, asserting that would be a cost savings. Others suggested a return to traditional calendar in all school buildings.

The most popular suggestion by far was the addition of a fee – for attendance, for parking, for open lunch, for athletics, for textbooks.

Many people suggested pay cuts or furloughs of some kind. Some set limits such that only highly compensated people got cuts. Johnny in Raleigh wrote, "I would rather have a pay cut than lose my job," and many echoed that sentiment.

Those who suggested staff reductions targeted employees nearing retirement and the Instructional Resource Teacher (IRT) and teacher aide positions. Ricci in Cary wrote, "IRT positions do not help regular, daily classroom teachers. These could be eliminated with minimal impact on students."

Many people liked the possibility of a four-day week, but few noted the hardship that would place on working parents. Some advocated for the four-day week only for Central Office staff or only during the summer months.

Savings on paper and/or textbooks were most common suggestion from those who did not mention staff and schedule. Many gave examples of wasted paper and suggested that communications from school to home be limited to e-mail and Web. Some suggested that textbooks be replaced with e-readers or be used longer and replaced less often.

The second-most popular suggestion for cost savings was to look at utilities. People mentioned over and over that classrooms are too cold in summer and too hot in winter. "My building is either sweltering hot with the heat on or frigidly cold with the air conditioning," a teacher in Raleigh wrote. "Set the heat and air at 70 degrees always."

Others noted that they drive by school facilities only to see them lit up at night; a few even recommended replacing all lighting with LED bulbs.

With the state facing approximately $3.5 billion in budget cuts, Gov. Bev Perdue has asked all state agencies to draw up a list of spending cuts of between 5 and 15 percent.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction said a cut of only 5 percent would equal layoffs for more than 400 teachers and 73 teaching assistants in the Wake County system.

New superintendent to make appearance Thursday

The incoming superintendent of the Wake County Public School System will make his first public appearance in the Triangle on Thursday, when he addresses the conservative Wake County Taxpayers Association.

Anthony Tata, a retired U.S. Army officer who was chief operating officer of the District of Columbia Public Schools, was named to the post on Christmas Eve.

He takes the job at a time of political tension on the Board of Education and budget pressure from the county and state.



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