Wake County Schools

Stability, diversity are 'clarion calls,' Wake schools chief says

Posted May 5, 2011 11:45 a.m. EDT
Updated May 5, 2011 11:02 p.m. EDT

— Ninety days into his tenure as superintendent of the Wake County Public School System, Tony Tata says the matter of student assignment is among the top concerns among parents and teachers he's met with over the past few months.

"Stability is the clarion call here, and diversity is also the clarion call," Tata said Thursday of the issue, which has polarized the community since a revision last year to the district's longstanding policy of busing students to help achieve socio-economic diversity.

Effective with the 2012-13 school year, the change affects the way the school system places students in schools by focusing on proximity to where they live instead of shifting students from schools so that no school has more than 40 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunches.

"(The question here is) how do you manage the growth while capturing the history and the essence of this system and what has made it so great. And we think – we think – we're on that path with the Student Assignment Task force," Tata said.

Since March, a six-member team of school system staff has been working full-time to find the best way to implement the controversial policy change.

It hopes to take two proposed courses of action, based on research from 22 school districts across the country using 18 criteria, to the public within the next few weeks for feedback before making a recommendation to the school board.

"I think the key thing we have to do is capture the rich history and legacy of what makes this school system so successful, while also accommodating for growth," Tata said. "Because that is the real issue. That's the 800-pound gorilla in the room – that the growth that we experienced kept breaking these assignment plans."

Tata says stability in the wake of that growth – the Wake County school system, with approximately 143,000 students, is the largest in the state and continues to grow – has been the central theme he's heard from parents and teachers in the past three months.

Since replacing former Superintendent Del Burns on Jan. 31, Tata says, he has visited 91 schools, met with more than 1,000 teachers, hundreds of parents and has attended more than 300 meetings around the county.

Student achievement and improving schools are also continual themes he's heard from the community.

"We've got to get this right.," he said. "We don't have an option."

In the midst of tough economic times and an anticipated 5 percent budget cut, it's a challenge.

Tata's $1.25 billion budget prioritizes teacher retention and classroom investment in the face of a projected $2 billion to $3 billion state budget shortfall next year.

Under the budget, the school district will cut 46 central services clerical positions, reduce contract months for assistant principals and reduce per-student spending by $52 next year. Additional resources will be directed toward teacher retention in underenrolled schools and creating new technology and international studies programs in 10 schools.

"My priorities were protecting teachers and classrooms, setting the conditions for all schools to be in high demand and operating more efficiently," Tata said. "I really think that's the right focus for us. And I think we've been messaging that well to the county commissioners and state legislators."