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Conservative Wake school board members discover change is tougher than it looks

A reality check

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An enduring image of the new Wake County school board in its first month of action comes from last week's "committee of the whole" meeting. The subject was a survey of parents about whether they want their kids to attend year-round or traditional-calendar schools. Simple? The discussion went on for two hours. This took place immediately prior to the board's regular meeting, which—because of a three-hour public comment period—consumed another six.

Committee meetings take place in a small conference room a few doors removed from the public meeting hall. At one end of the conference table, Board Chair Ron Margiotta presided with Schools Superintendent Del Burns to his right and Margiotta's four conservative allies—all new members elected this fall—close by on either side. The other four members, holdovers from the old board who now constitute the moderate or progressive minority, were seated farther down. At the opposite end of the table, facing Margiotta, were three of Burns' top lieutenants—Assistant Superintendents Chuck Dulaney and David Holdzkom and Chief Operating Officer Don Haydon.

To the parents, press and advocates of various political kinds who were packed along the walls, the participants looked like conferees at a negotiating table after an invasion: Margiotta's conquerers, treading lightly as they attempt to occupy the territory, and the vanquished but still-proud natives, appearing subservient but quite willing to draw their foes into a quagmire.

Were the board and staff aligned in their goals, Margiotta would merely have needed to describe what his members wanted—an end to the policy of assigning students to year-round schools as of the 2010-11 school year and a return to voluntary year-round placements. They would have entrusted Burns & Co. with figuring out what kind of survey was required, if any, to determine how many year-round schools should be left.

Alternately, since the two sides are not aligned, Margiotta's majority might have chosen to declare the policy change peremptorily—no more mandatory year-round schools, as they say—and let the chips fall where they may: Some schools would be overcrowded next year while others might be half-empty.

However, after rushing into office Dec. 1 with a set of proposed policy changes that threatened, their critics said, to destroy the Wake school system in order to save it, the Margiotta majority has retreated, sensing the treacherous terrain ahead. They're realizing that if they're not, to use member John Tedesco's word, "prudent," what they don't know—and what they don't trust the staff to protect them from—could ensnare them in costly mistakes.

Thus, a task that might've been accomplished in a few minutes—the survey of parents—led to painstaking negotiations. Burns' staffers were greatly solicitous of the members' wishes about exactly what the survey was intended to do, precisely who should be surveyed, and literally how the questions should be worded. You could almost hear the staffers thinking, "You won't be able to blame us if this survey comes back with useless information." Or, as Holdzkom, the staff's research chief, warned, if conducting the survey ends up costing $80,000 or more.

Margiotta's side, meanwhile, was working equally hard not to get caught in a boondoggle of their own creation.

Back and forth they went, debating the myriad options that the staff presented. An online survey would be quick and cheap, staffers said. But if the board's purpose was to determine not just what parents think about year-round schools, but where the year-round schools should be located in order to serve the parents who prefer them for one or more of their children, such a survey would take much longer to conduct and tabulate—and it would cost much more.

A 70 percent-plus return rate would be the minimum required for good planning, staffers said, which could necessitate mailing the forms with prepaid postage on the returns.

Your call, staffers said, leaving it to Margiotta and his mates to decide—which they did, opting for a middle course—not the most expensive survey, but close to it. But not before Burns told the board that what the conservative majority wants will take until February or March to complete. We can make recommendations to you in April, Burns said, but that will be too late to factor into your 2010-11 school assignments, a process that must be finished by May 15.

Thus, the new majority was put off indefinitely: no action until 2011-12 on the relatively easy matter of ending mandatory year-round assignments. Imagine what's ahead when they tackle the much more difficult and controversial questions about Wake's diversity policy, its magnet schools—including year-round magnets—and their own campaign promises to assign all students to schools closest to home.

The staff is unlikely help them as the board majority tries to alter a system that's a national model—and a bargain at costing only $8,000-a-year per student—and replace it with "neighborhood schools."

The four new members were elected this fall after promising to make sweeping changes to the Wake system. But the closer they are to implementing these changes, the more they confront the prospect that their goals will cost more money than the system has now or is likely to get, especially as state aid to schools is cut.

For example, under existing policy, "mandatory" year-round assignments are rare. Initially, elementary and middle school students are assigned to a "base" traditional-calendar school or to a year-round school in their area, Assistant Superintendent Dulaney said. But with "very few exceptions," he added, requests for transfers from a year-round school to a traditional-calendar school have been granted.

However, Dulaney emphasized, year-round schools exist to prevent the overcrowding of the Wake school system. Year-round schools add "seats" by using the existing facilities more intensively. Ending initial assignments to them could result in fewer kids choosing them, he warned, crowding the traditional-calendar "base" while some year-round seats go begging.

And though the new board members agitate about mandatory year-rounds, the fact is that the overall demand for year-round seats exceeds the supply, Dulaney added. Just 70 percent of kids asking to be transferred from their traditional-calendar school to their year-round school were accepted this year.

The problem is, demand for year-rounds is spread across the county, but the schools are in places that may not correspond to the neighborhoods of kids who want to attend them.

Similarly, kids can apply for placement in magnet schools, which are concentrated in or near Raleigh in the center of the county, but the demand exceeds the supply.

If more magnets are added in Wake's outer suburbs, however, as some of the new members advocate, the result would be empty seats in the Raleigh magnets. Some of these seats could be filled—at the risk of creating high-poverty schools—by returning low-income students who are bused to suburban schools now under the system's diversity policy.

But even so, the number of students who live in the center of Raleigh is about half the number of seats in their neighborhood schools.

Leaving seats empty or closing schools would require building more schools in the suburbs or purchasing more classroom trailers, and both would be expensive.

At a forum on school issues the following night in Southeast Raleigh, board member Keith Sutton, one of the four members in the political minority, offered to work with the majority members toward a compromise aimed at helping low-income kids without resegregating the system. It should be a "hybrid" of everybody's ideas, he said. "I'm not pro- or anti- anything. I'm for what works."

John Tedesco was the only other board member present at the Southeast Raleigh forum. He was non-committal, saying only that the majority is "looking at a variety of different plans right now," including community schools models from Houston and Seattle.

"Put your plans out there," former board member Carol Parker urged him. "You need to be open [with us], and we need to understand what you're looking at."

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