February 21, 2013
“We need to get a bond approved”
Long-running disputes between Wake County commissioners and school board members came to a head this morning as members of both groups traded blunt assessments of who should build and own Wake County’s schools.
Ironically, the sharp exchanges were delivered after both sides agreed that North Carolina’s largest school district desperately needs voters to approve new construction bonds if the school system is going to keep up with growth.
“We may have our differences, but we need to get a bond approved,” said school board member John Tedesco, whose comments were echoed by just about every member of both elected bodies.
Recognizing that their ability to compromise could become the key to a successful campaign, the two boards agreed to get together soon to discuss the topics that have strained relations in the past – from meddling in each other’s business to how money is spent.
Also In This Issue
Picking your favorite child
Some states question need for Common Core
District wants input on next superintendent
Former board member applies for vacant seat
Schools could see slight budget increase
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“Right now, the community sees us as a bunch of adults fighting like children over turf,” said Tom Benton, who was sworn in just this week as the newest member of the school board. “We have to address this.”
Much of the meeting, which lasted almost four hours, was spent discussing details such as the timing and scope of a bond request.
The total cost of a program running through 2016 would be about $1.3 billion, according to a presentation by Joe Desormeaux, the school district’s assistant superintendent for facilities. A building program that ran until 2020 would cost about $1.7 billion.
While the building program will require a property tax increase, the size of that increase won’t be known until the county decides how much construction can be paid through existing tax revenue and how much money can be borrowed through the sale of bonds.
A host of other factors must also be decided such as the balance between new schools and renovations, whether new schools would operate on traditional or year-round calendars, how many classroom trailers to keep, how full schools should be the first year they open and how much choice the county wishes to offer.
The district currently enrolls about 150,000 students and is expected to add about 3,500 more per year until at least 2020. While that number is large, it represents significantly slower growth than the county was experiencing during the last bond campaign in 2006.
“I don’t think our challenge is as big as I feared it would be,” said county commission Chair Joe Bryan. “It’s a huge challenge, but after hearing this … I feel a little bit more comfortable.”
Whether voters feel as comfortable is a separate question. The request to sell bonds will be placed on the ballot in October, said County Manager David Cooke. That means the commissioners and school board members have until early June to agree on the size of the request.
In the meantime, they will also address the simmering differences that became a public feud last month. That’s when the county introduced a state legislative agenda calling for commissioners to take over the ownership of school buildings, change the way school board members are elected and allow charter schools to receive public money for buildings.
Bryan defended the commissioners’ decision based on disputes with previous school boards dating back more than a decade.
Most current school board members were not involved in those disputes, although they are well aware of the history and details. Still, they feel the commissioners were wrong to ask state lawmakers to settle a local issue without first talking to the current school board.
“We’ll be happy to talk with you about it,” said school board Chair Keith Sutton.
“Of course you will now,” Bryan quickly replied.
It now appears both sides will get that opportunity with a successful school bond request hanging in the balance.
Picking your favorite child
In one of their most far-ranging discussions about student assignment, school board members this month spent almost two hours debating ways to fairly balance the competing interests of achievement, stability and proximity.
They failed to resolve the question in such a short amount of time, with board member Jim Martin comparing the task to “picking your favorite child.” But the discussion uncovered some fundamental differences in how the current school board is likely to tackle the task compared to previous years.
One of the more obvious – and most important – areas of consensus was an acknowledgement that the district can no longer assign its way to uniformly diverse schools. There was widespread speculation when new board members were elected last fall that the pursuit of diversity would result in massive reassignments.
Instead, much of the discussion at a joint committee meeting of the board focused on what is fair and equitable for students.
While some might argue this could be two sides of the same coin, board Chair Keith Sutton made it clear that Wake is too large to expect student assignment alone can ensure fairness.
“When you have a school that is 80 percent poor and minority, how do you equitably address that?” he asked. “These are the realities of today’s housing patterns.”
But equity and fairness are much easier to support than they are to define, which is why a considerable amount of time was spent discussing an “equity policy” modeled after a proposal from late 2011.
Define equity once in a single policy, board members agreed, and it would take the pressure off student assignment to carry out the task.
But equal and equitable are not the same thing. Equity could require taking resources from some classrooms so other children can get more help. At best, it will require many difficult choices.
It might be easier to pick your favorite child.
Some states question need for Common Core
Critics of the new national, more rigorous classroom standards known as Common Core have been gaining attention recently after months of nearly unanimous support.
According to an article in Education Week, opponents in Colorado, Idaho, and Indiana have become more vocal as states get closer to using the new tests in 2014-2015. At the same time, Alabama announced it was leaving one of the groups designing the exams.
Much of the criticism focuses on whether the national standards will ultimately mean a national curriculum and loss of local control over schools. The overall effort is still widely supported with 46 states supporting the English standards and 45 states supporting the math standards.
North Carolina was among the earliest states in the nation to support the new standards by aligning its expectations of students with the goals of the Common Core in 2010. That decision has already created significant changes in today’s classrooms where teachers are shifting the emphasis from memorizing content to applying knowledge.
North Carolina will use a new round of state-designed exams this year to assess how well schools are meeting the Common Core standards. Once new national exams are complete, they should provide schools throughout the country with a clear and consistent understanding of what students are expected to learn and how they compare to one another.
The push for national standards initially came from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The effort was quickly endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education, which has led critics to suggest it was a federal initiative from the beginning.
But that does not seem to be a unifying theme among critics, according to the Education Week article. The story also points out that a group known as ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council – has backed away from early opposition because its members were divided.
Student test scores are expected to drop significantly when the new standards are applied. And that, in turn, will quickly draw the attention of parents who have yet to appreciate that the push for new standards is well underway in states such as North Carolina.
When that happens, educators and supporters believe the criticism will peak and the long-term viability of the Common Core will be decided.
…The Wake County school board is seeking online input from residents about the qualities they would like to see in the district’s next superintendent. The request is among several ways that the search firm McPherson & Jacobson will gauge the community’s priorities before providing the school board with a list of candidates.
…Former school board member Bill Fletcher of Cary has applied for the vacant school board seat created by the resignation of Debra Goldman. Fletcher, who was on the board from 1993 to 2005, will need to wait until Feb. 22 to see who else will apply for the District 9 seat. The eight current board members are expected to select a replacement from Goldman by the end of March.
…A slightly stronger economy this year has led to suggestions by some Wake County commissioners that Wake schools might receive an additional $6 million to $10 million in 2013-2014. The school board will start to publicly discuss details of its budget request in March. Local funding for schools has been flat for the past four years while enrollments have grown, resulting in less funding per student. The county provides about $314 million of a $1.2 billion operating budget.
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