What responsibility does the Wake County school system have in providing transportation to preassigned rising sixth- and ninth-graders who don't have bus service this fall?
As noted in today's article, the school board voted to direct staff to, when possible, modify existing bus routes to accommodate students or to offer them a spot at a school on their proximity list that would give them transportation.
But that motion stops short of guaranteeing bus service to their feeder school. And that motion only extends to students who are receiving bus service this year and would lose it this fall, not transfer students who now don't get bus service.
In what would later prove to be a key issue, Superintendent Tony Tata said during the work session that the old assignment plan had 9,000 students who were assigned without transportation as a result of transfers. He made this point to argue that cutting the bus service for the 470 rising sixth- and ninth-graders who had it this year isn't a unique situation.
Tata said most of the 470 students chose not to participate in the choice process. Staff says only 70 of them are on waiting lists. This group consists of 292 rising sixth-graders and 178 rising ninth-graders.
Tata also said that if they guaranteed bus service to the 470, which would cost $2 million to run 30 more buses, then the 9,000 transfer students would ask "what about me?"
School board member Jim Martin was clearly skeptical of the $2 million figure, saying "that can't be right."
Chief Facilities and Operations Officer Don Haydon said it would cost that much because the students are scattered across the county.
Martin said he would press ahead with his motion to include bus service for all preassigned students. School board attorney Ann Majestic said that language was very broad and would cover the transfer students.
In a point he would repeat, Martin said he wasn't comfortable with not guaranteeing them transportation to their feeder school.
"I don’t want to pressure families into saying you only have transportation if you go this school that’s not your choice," Martin said.
Jumping to the regular meeting, staff made sure to include in their motion that it only affected rising sixth- and ninth-graders who now get bus service but would lose it by going to their preassigned feeder. This limited it to 470 student and didn't include transfer students.
School board member Christine Kushner questioned not including transfer students. She said in the past when families got transfers, they didn't realize it would lead to a feeder without transportation too.
Martin complained that the wording, by not guaranteeing transportation, isn't different to what staff had been doing. Martin wanted to modify the motion to say they'd make all effort, not just say when it can be provided.
Also, since staff said 80 percent of the 470 students are from low-performing nodes, Martin wanted to change the motion to say that staff would get the students into a regional choice school and not just any school on their list.
"It's absolutely our obligation not to disadvantage our students with the highest needs," Martin said.
School board member Susan Evans would also make a pitch for guaranteeing service. She said providing a family with their fifth choice isn't a real choice.
"Families are looking to us to give them some certainty in these crazy times they’re in with this transition to this new plan," Evans said. "We’ve got a lot of people caught in the middle."
School board member John Tedesco brought up the cost factor of guaranteeing transportation.
"It would be irresponsible to mandate a will without looking at, if that does cost %2 million, where that cost is coming from," Tedesco said.
Tedesco questioned spending that money for those few students when they could spend $2 million improving cleaning services for all the district's students.
"Those number are not appropriate," Martin interjected.
"This is not a court of law, you can't object, " Tedesco responded.
Kushner proposed a friendly amendment that would strike the words "currently receiving district transportation" from the motion. This would then lump in the transfer students who currently don't have transportation.
School board vice chairman Keith Sutton called a recess to let staff determine how many students would be affected by that wording.
After the recess, James Overman, head of the student assignment task force, said it would raise the number of students impacted to 1,039.
Based on that higher amount, school board member Chris Malone, who made the motion to accept staff's motion, said he couldn't accept the amendment.
The tenor of the conversation proceeded to get testier.
School board member Deborah Prickett said she had to question whether Martin's motives were genuine when he said that providing bus service to all the students is the cost of business.
Tedesco said the people who had gotten transfers accepted they weren't getting bus service.
Evans said those people didn't know when they got a transfer they'd be in this new feeder system.
Evans also touched on the impact of guaranteeing bus service for the 470 students. Evans said that staff has "admitted several times" they don't know the full transportation cost of the new plan.
"The little piece that these couple of hundred students would add isn’t much," Evans said. " We know that transportation costs will go up.”
Tata said they've consistently said the new assignment plan will cost five to 25 additional buses.
Martin brought up former Secretary of State Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn" rule of "you break it, you own it," to say that bus service should be guaranteed.
"We didn't break anything," Tata responded.
Martin also said he had "a hard time" accepting that it would only cost five to 25 more buses. He said he "won't be surprised" if Wake will need more buses.
"I don’t feel we did an appropriate costing of the plan and now we’re paying the consequence," Martin said.
Kushner called for board members to have respect when others are speaking and to stop questioning motives.
Not long afterward, school board member Debra Goldman accused Martin of talking over everyone. I didn't hear it, but Prickett said she had heard Evans say "hush" to Goldman over her remark.. Prickett also said Evans said "get a life" to her when she pointed it out.
The board eventually went back to voting on the motion from staff. It passed on a 6-3 vote.