Student Assignment Direction at Stake in School Board Runoff

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The upcoming runoff battle between incumbent Kevin Hill (D) and Heather Losurdo (R) will decide whether a conservative or liberal majority controls the implementation of a long-debated new assignment plan — a plan many say is unfinished.

NOVEMBER RUNOFF

Early Voting: Oct. 20-Nov. 5
Election Day: Nov. 8
Poll Hours 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.

The Wake County School Board approved the new choice plan last week, despite some requests to wait until the new board takes office Dec. 6.

Even groups who supported passing the new choice plan by the lame duck board have referred to it as a “framework,” “foundation” and “blueprint,” while those who called for delaying the vote went further, calling the plan “unfinished” and saying it raises too many unanswered questions.

What all sides have agreed on is that the success of the plan depends on its implementation, a process new board members will oversee.

“A plan is only as good as its implementation,” said former school board member and diversity advocate John Gilbert. “I think there is ample reason to doubt the implementation of the plan, specifically, will it prevent high-poverty schools?”

Neighborhood schools supporter Jennifer Mansfield, who unsuccessfully ran for Hill’s seat in October, has questioned whether the plan will truly provide proximity.

“How many students live within 1.5 miles of each school?” she asked.

Under the choice plan, a student is assigned to a school based on a complicated formula, which weighs proximity, choice, stability and student achievement. It’s in the weighting of these critical components that implementation is likely to play out.

Since neighborhood school supporters believe proximity leads to better student achievement, they are likely to give more weight to proximity as the plan evolves.

Diversity advocates will be likely to add more weight to student achievement so as to better “balance” the percentage of high and low-performing students in any one school, which they believe is important to the success of low performers.

Where They Stand (and Stood) on Assignment
Candidate Heather Losurdo expressed doubt during the initial campaign about the choice plan, but later spoke in favor of it.

The News and Observer reported just one week before the election that she couldn’t vote for the assignment plan as it stood then.

“It may be best to slow things and wait another year,” she said in the N&O.

When she spoke to the Record about the quotes two weeks later she said, “I was never in disagreement with the direction.”

Since having doubts, Losurdo said, “I got more informed and my questions were answered.”

Losurdo said her decision to support the plan at the last minute, before Hill’s “no” vote, wasn’t politically motivated.

Meanwhile, Hill has been clear all along on the change he thinks the plan needs. The plan does not set aside seats for low-performing students at high-performing schools, a dealbreaker issue for Hill.

“I can’t negotiate on the issue of student achievement,” Hill said, just before voting against the plan last week.

The issue is sure to be a factor for voters Nov. 8.

“If I get elected there won’t be drastic changes to the plan,” Losurdo said. “If my opponent gets elected there will be.”

Although she proposes no drastic changes, she acknowledges the plan has unknown factors.

One sticking point for Losurdo is if 10 to 15 percent of students don’t get their first choice school or their school closest to home.

“It would be a concern,” she said. “We’d need to deal with that.”

One way to deal with it would be to add more weight to proximity, but as of yet Losurdo is not sure what she’d do.

“I don’t think that question can be answered yet,” she said.

Some have suggested that if diversity supporters come back into power they will scrap the plan and perhaps even the new superintendent, Tony Tata.

However, Hill and Keith Sutton, the only board members to vote against the new assignment plan, have said repeatedly they agree with the general direction of Superintendent Tata’s plan.

Sutton said he voted against the plan because it didn’t give the board members-elect a chance to be part of the planning.

Who’s Likely to Win
In terms of party affiliation, District 3 is fairly evenly divided. To analyze who might win in November, let’s break down the October vote that resulted in this runoff.

The October Results
Assuming all Democrat voters supported Hill, the diversity candidate, and all Republicans voted for one of the neighborhood school candidates, there are two logical ways of interpreting the unaffiliated vote.

One: Hill picked up 9 percent of unaffiliated voters, while conservative-leaning candidates picked up 11 percent.

This would be a bad indicator for Hill in the runoff, given that the number of Republicans and Democrats in District 3 is virtually split down the middle.

October Voters in District 3 by Party Affiliation
Another interpretation rests on Losurdo’s endorsement from the GOP. It’s possible that Losurdo picked up the vast majority of Republican votes in the district; the percentage she received is nearly identical to the percentage of Republicans that voted in the election.

In that case, unaffiliated neighborhood schools supporter Jennifer Mansfield received the majority of unaffiliated votes to go conservative, with Hill still garnering around 9 percent.

This scenario doesn’t bode incredibly well for Hill either.

Public Policy Polling has supposed that in a runoff Hill would win most of the votes that went to Mansfield and Squires. But this theory isn’t logical, at least intuitively.

Both Mansfield and Squires, like Losurdo, supported neighborhood schools, which either indicates voters weren’t educated on this point or they weren’t voting on the issue of student assignment.

In such an evenly matched contest, it’s entirely possible that outside money — not student assignment — will make all the difference.

One such example is a liberal group, Common Sense Matters, backed by Dean Debnam of Public Policy Polling. Such groups have already poured money into election communications such as campaign mailers.

A Supreme Court decision called the Citizen’s United case allows outside groups to have an impact on elections with minimal reporting.  And the District 3 runoff could just be the Petri dish for the impact that decision is having on cities like Raleigh.

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