Should the Wake County school system guarantee bus service to all students who choose to stay on their current feeder pattern?
It's an issue in the new student assignment that the school board has been wrestling with for the past several months. The discussion got personal at times last week with board member Jim Martin, the most outspoken proponent of providing the bus service, taking shots from board members Debra Goldman and Deborah Prickett.
For now, staff is continuing to review what bus service can be provided.
For the quick primer, every student on the new plan who is currently getting transportation is guaranteed to keep that bus service as long as they're at that school.
Students also have the option to grandfather into their current feeder pattern. But they don't get transportation if their feeder schools aren't on their choice list.
Initially, some 1,500 rising sixth-graders and ninth-graders received pre-assignments into a middle school or high school for the 2012-13 school year without bus service.
Some examples students in that group are:
* People who had opted out of a year-round school but whose traditional-calendar opt out is so far away that their feeder middle school or high school isn't on their choice list.
* People who've been assigned to a school for diversity reasons that's not near where they live. The inclusion of achievement-choice schools has reduced how many of these Southeast Raleigh families are impacted.
* Magnet students who had planned to return to their base school under the old plan but now are assigned to magnet secondary schools without bus service.
Wake has been encouraging those families to apply to schools on their choice list to get transportation for the upcoming school year.
Chief Transformation Officer Judy Peppler told school board members at last week's work session that they are now down to 549 preassigned students who don't have transportation with 84 of them on waiting lists. This handout lists 748 students but Peppler said it's an old number.
Peppler said that an initial analysis by the transportation department indicates that they could handle one-third of those 549 students on existing bus routes without needing additional resources. She said transportation thought that they'd need additional buses to transport the other two-thirds.
The result was that staff's recommendation was that they don't guarantee transportation for the 549 students. Instead, Peppler said staff would send those families another letter reminding them they don't have transportation.
For the two-thirds that would require additional resources, Peppler said they had three options:
* Tell them to wait until bus routes are established for the next school year to see if they can get service if they make request.
* Tell them they can still go to the preassigned school if they provide their own transportation.
* Tell families they can make a transfer request between May 15-June 1 with staff working them individually to find another school. Unlike the past where transfers meant no bus service, families can get transportation if they get into a school on their choice list.
The options didn't please some school board members.
School board chairman Kevin Hill said that he felt "uncomfortable" about not providing transportation to a school that a student has been assigned to attend.
“I feel that if we are assigning students to a school, we have to find a way to guarantee transportation," Hill said.
In response to a question from Hill, Bob Snidemiller, the senior director of transportation, said new routes would be established three weeks before the start of the school year.
Hill said that's not enough time. Hill said he's hearing from a number of families affected by this situation who are still trying to find a way to get their children to school. He cited an example of how it can take a family months to get preschool care and afterschool care arranged.
School board member John Tedesco asked how families wound up being assigned to a school without transportation.
Superintendent Tony Tata cited the example of a Salem Elementary School student from Southeast Raleigh who would get preassigned to Salem Middle without transportation because it's not on their choice list
Tedesco said those families are the ones who'd need the transportation the most.
School board member Susan Evans said they were in effect discouraging a family in that situation from staying in the feeder by not giving them transportation.
School board member Christine Kushner asked about the preassigned people who took part in the choice process but didn't get a school. Peppler pointed out that they had reduced the number from when they had started with 1,500 in November.
Peppler said the problem with guaranteeing transportation for all those students is that they don't know how much it will cost.
“If we promise every one of these transportation, then it’s very difficult to help them move to a different school or encourage them to because now we’ve promised them transportation when don’t know for sure what that’s going to cost for everyone," Peppler said.
Tata added they plan to do another transportation analysis based on the updated assignment plan data.
Martin said he planned to make a motion at the evening's action meeting to provide transportation for all preassigned students.
"It's the cost of doing business," Martin said.
Martin has been trying unsuccessfully since he was sworn in to get a board vote to guarantee transportation.
"I think it’s a cost we could have anticipated," Martin said. "I think it’s a cost that we need to bear."
Tedesco said he supports wanting to provide transportation. But he said the motion would be "premature" because staff is still planning to do another round of analysis.
Martin responded that they've been told it's premature since before round one.
“When is it not going to be premature?” Martin said.
Tedesco, pointing to how staff has reduced the number of students affected from 1,500, said if they waited another week staff might get it fixed.
"Let’s give them a chance," Tedesco said of staff.
"Parents need to know," Martin replied.
“We’re holding a lot of people in limbo," Evans added.
Summing it up, Hill said it appeared to be the board's desire to provide transportation to all students.
School board attorney Ann Majestic stepped in to raise a legal question. She asked if it was the board's intention to provide that transportation through high school for the rising sixth-graders.
Hill responded it's their belief that it would be for the grade span of the school the student would be entering this fall.
Martin added that "it's not clear" that the board can guarantee feeder patterns through high school anyway.
Regardless, Majestic said they need to clearly communicate to parents how long they plan to provide transportation.
Hill suggested taking a week for staff to go through things and avoid any potential unintended consequences. He said staff might get the number of students affected down to 25.
But Martin said he was concerned that the board has kept pushing and pushing the issue off. He said he was putting himself in the parent's position.
“Families are waiting for us to actually take some action, and I’d like us to do that," Martin said.
Hill told Martin that he should feel free to exercise that motion at the board table.
This is when Goldman went after Martin, pointing back to before the elections when he appeared at board meetings to argue against moving to the choice plan.
“I just have to comment on something because I’m finding it very interesting that you’re very concerned right now with the parents of these kids that are unassigned because they’re making a choice for something that was not on their presented choice list, and we’re trying to give everyone as many options as possible," Goldman said. "But you are the same person that came and spoke to us so negatively while we were trying to get these choices for our students. You came to each board meeting and would get up there and talk to us.
As a parent whose child who was bused quite far, not by my choice, I worked very hard to get a choice plan. I just have to point out the irony now that you’re sitting here saying that you’re very concerned that these parents can have transportation for their choice.
Of course we believe, I believe, it would be wonderful to give all these parents transportation and it would be great to give everyone their choices. That is the goal, to be parent friendly, student friendly and take care of our families so I’ll guess I’ll have to say welcome to looking at this from the parent’s side because it’s something you were not doing before. I guess I’m glad to hear you speaking from that side.”
Tedesco said he agreed wit the overall sentiment about providing transportation. But he said it may be better to leave staff with the flexibility to work with families, including helping them get students into the achievement-choice schools to get the transportation.
“We may not want to box ourselves in to say that we’re going to do everything we can to give them transportation," Tedesco said. "That may not be the right help or the appropriate help, particularly if it ends up being that we’re sending 25 buses out to pick up one kid here driving one hour that way, one hour driving a kid that way."
Evans said that many of the families who are in this situation who have contacted her have indicated they "were shut out" when they participated in the choice process. She cited the example of magnet students who "tried diligently" to get into another school when they were told they were preassigned to a magnet middle school without transportation.
“Many people are trying to choose their proximity schools and they’re not getting it and now they’re forcefully being sent to a school with no transportation and that’s what we have to talk about," Evans said.
Peppler responded that they're down to 84 of the preassigned students on waiting lists.
Board member Deborah Prickett chimed in to support Goldman's accusations and to bring up how Martin had charged that staff had made bell schedule changes to help Republican board members.
"Ms. Goldman has an excellent point about what she was saying about how on one side Mr. Martin, or Dr. Martin, has talked on one side on one way and then I also remembered Dr. Martin voting against the bell schedule, and to me that just impacted thousands of families throughout Wake County," Prickett said. "It just kind of seems to be just such a difference here.
You know it’s like on one hand I’m hearing compassion like you care and on the other hand you voted against all the families to have a bell schedule change. I just want that noted."
“I voted for the families who didn’t want a bell schedule changed," Martin interjected.
"Excuse me, I’m talking," Prickett replied. "Also for Mr. Tedesco, I think he has some very good points he just made about considering families but giving staff a chance to work.
With the bell schedule situation, staff was blamed and the superintendent was blamed for trying to show partial treatment to certain board members or to certain families about the bell schedule. I just think that we need to let our staff, who are very qualified, very capable, to work through this process and not just put a blanket motion out there until we can really understand the situation because this is impacting a lesser amount of students and these are unique situations.”
During the regular meeting, the only recommended change to the assignment plan that staff asked the board to vote on was delaying Abbotts Creek Elementary's opening.
After that vote, Martin attempted to introduce his motion to provide transportation to all the preassigned students. He asked if it could be incorporated into the Abbotts Creek agenda item.
Martin asked where he could go ahead with his motion to change the assignment plan.
Martin brought up how the initial agenda item for the April 24 meeting had included reference to a potential recommendation on transportation for those students. He brought up how he had tried to introduce his motion at that meeting but held off because staff said more data was needed.
Hill said there's no proper place on the agenda to place Martin's motion. Hill also said he hadn't seen a request in writing from Martin for his motion to be an action item that night. But Hill said he'd make a note that it will be on the next board meeting.
Martin responded by calling for a vote to amend the agenda to include his motion. Evans seconded the motion.
Tedesco responded that he had thought that based on the work session discussion the board had chosen not to advance the issue as they waited for the additional transportation analysis.
Prickett added that there wasn't a thumbs up vote up during the work session so she thought they were leaving it up to staff for now. Prickett said that adding Martin's motion to the agenda would make the board look like it's not organized "and all over the page."
Martin responded that he had said during the work session that he was going to bring his motion up during the regular meeting and that he wasn't told he couldn't do so.
"But Dr. Martin, you say a lot of things," Prickett said.
"That's right I do," Martin responded.
Prickett said there was no disrespect intended in her remark. She reiterated that she thought they were going to let staff work on the issue.
Goldman stepped in to say she wanted some clarity. Earlier in the action meeting, Goldman had proposed what's essentially a motion calling for the school district to provide more transparency. I'll get into it more later but there was some grumbling about it not being on the agenda although Goldman had provided a written copy of her item to Hill in advance of the meeting.
It was left up in the air what would happen next with Goldman's request.
School board vice chairman Keith Sutton said Goldman's request was out of order because it didn't deal with Martin's motion.
Goldman responded that if Hill intended to move forward on adding Martin's motion as an action item on the next meeting then she wanted her transparency item honored the same way. If not, she said she might want to amend Martin's motion.
Majestic said that Goldman couldn't ask a parliamentary question.
Goldman charged that the lack of action on her item was an attempt to obstruct some board members from getting items on the agenda.
When Hill called for ending discussion, Goldman responded that it would take a two-thirds vote to do so. That motion to close discussion fell short.
Hill said Goldman's item, like Martin's motion, would go to the board's executive committee, i.e. him and Sutton.
Goldman responded that it's just Hill and Sutton going behind closed doors to make decision for the board.
Martin's motion to amend the agenda failed on a voice vote.
Clarified that the Salem Elementary example Tata cited would be of a Southeast Raleigh student who has been assigned there.