Wake County school board chairman Kevin Hill is trying to ease concerns about the school board's recent vote to change the student assignment plan for the 2013-14 school year.
As noted in today's article, Hill said during a Friday meeting with N&O editors and reporters that he's not expecting the return to an address-based plan to result in large-scale reassignment. He stressed the proposed "stay where you start" policy which would allow students to stay at the school they're attending until they complete the grade span.
But Hill also said they're still going to have to reassign people to fill all the new schools that Wake will need to deal with growth.
While short on details, Hill said they're trying to combine the best elements of the old plan and the choice plan. He said he expects staff to present the proposal to the board in early September. In the interim, Hill said he wants board members to meet with staff so they're kept in the loop about what will be proposed.
"Let's work together and move forward," Hill said. "Nobody has said that choice is dead. The choice plan had some very good points."
But Hill said the good points had to be weighed against the negative impact on newcomers and the problems caused by the choice plan's K-12 feeder patterns. He pointed to how families might not want to go to a magnet school for the entire K-12 span.
Hill said the board majority was moved to act over the past month after seeing the negative school demographic trends from the initial choice plan data.
The negative trend data is why Hill said the board majority also passed on June 19/20 that seats be reserved at the high-performing regional-choice schools for applicants from low-performing nodes. With hundreds of kindergarten students still expected to enroll, Hill said that past experience has shown that late-arriving families are more likely to have high-needs students.
Hill said the board majority was concerned that the late-arriving students could increase the F&R percentages by 10 or more percentage points at six to eight elementary schools.
"Wake County deserves better than that," Hill said of the potential demographic shifts. "Wake County kids deserve better than that."
Hill said that's why it was important to leave open enough seats at the regional-choice schools for applicants.
Hill promoted the merits of an address-based plan, saying "we need to have addresses tied to schools as much as we can." Hill pointed to the ability of Realtors to be able to sell Wake County to prospective homebuyers.
Hill also said that an address-based plan would help Wake better deal with growth and diversity.
Hill promoted the benefits of having diverse schools, noting the "national accolades" that Wake had received. He said his "proudest moment" was in 2009 when he accepted an award from the National School Boards Association’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) for the diversity policy.
“I do believe that we need to keep an eye on diversity," Hill said. "I think it’s important that our students are exposed to the diversity of our community.
Hill acknowledged that there were problems from the old plan that needed to be fixed, including students being on the bus too long. Then there's the issue of stability, which is why they're looking at adding a "stay where you start" policy.
“It will be their decision should they change school next year,” Hill said. “Parents have gone through a tremendous amount of agony and homework. And I believe there are a lot of parents that still don’t understand the system.
But Hill also pointed to how they're projecting the need to build and populate 20 new schools over the next eight years.
“If we’re going to open 20 schools in the next eight years, somebody’s got to go to them,” Hill said. “Our commitment is that every one of those 20 schools is as good as the schools that people might be asked to leave.”
Hill contrasted that with the problems they had getting people to apply to new schools like Abbotts Creek Elementary under the choice plan.
Still, Hill said he didn't foresee "massive reassignment" when they move to the new plan.
"I don't see the continuous reassignment that happened in the past," Hill said.
Hill said he envisions the new plan being focused around the opening of new schools, something he said had begun to happen when the three-year assignment plan was adopted in 2009.
Hill said he considered assignment to be one of the three major issues facing Wake. But he said assignments isn't the biggest one. He said the biggest are the other two issues: growth and budget.
Hill said he's been consistently talking about the growth issue since he was elected to the board in 2007.
"Growth is the big elephant in the room," Hill said. "Clearly it's a good thing. It's a double-edged issue. We want growth in Wake County. But we have to recognize that growth presents challenges."
In terms of the bond issue, Hill said he wants the Wake County Board of Commissioners to take a lead position in championing it to the public. He said they can't afford a repeat of what happened when the bond issue was defeated in 1999.
"I know what happened when the bond issue didn't pass," Hill said. "It took us eight-nine years to half recover from it."
One of the things that the commissioners and the community need to discuss, Hill said, is whether it's willing to support a large enough bond issue to build enough traditional-calendar schools instead of multi-track year-round schools that can cut down on construction costs by holding more students.
Hill pointed back to how the 2006 bond issue was reduced in amount by agreeing to open new elementary and middle schools on the year-round calendar and converting 23 existing schools to the year-round calendar.
"Is the community willing to pay the taxes to have only schools on traditional?" Hill said.
Hill said the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce also needs to take a leading role in getting a bond passed. He admitted he was a "little frustrated" at how the Chamber expressed disappointment on the vote on the assignment directive. He said the Chamber should have recognized how the choice plan negatively impacted newcomers.
In terms of budget, Hill said Wake is getting bang for the buck.
"People may not be in the school they want to be in," Hill said. "But they will receive a good education. When they leave Wake County, they'll look back and realize what a good education they received."
But Hill said that budget cuts in recent years have hurt academics. Hill said that Wake has avoided teacher layoffs because of the annual student growth that leads to additional state funding. But he said the cuts have resulted in problems such as larger class sizes.
Here are some of the other topics that were discussed:
Hill said he hopes that Tony Tata will still be superintendent a year from now.
"I like Tony," Hill said. "He's a professional. I had a meeting with him yesterday. He's assured me he's ready to move forward with developing a new plan. He works for the board. He knows that."
Hill said Tata did a good job of selling the choice plan. He said he hopes Tata can do the same with the new plan.
Hill said that prior to the 2009 school board elections when they became political issues, the public hadn't been talking much about neighborhood/community schools or the diversity policy. He said the fight in 2006 through 2008 was about mandatory year round assignments.
"We've got to get the politics out of the school board," Hill said.