Tense School Board Relations Lead to Slow Progress

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Heated discussions and slow progress are becoming a regular part of the agenda for the Wake County school board, as was evidenced Tuesday when an update on the new student assignment plan was bumped from a work session schedule.

Democratic board members in the new majority have said their top priority is to monitor the new plan and make changes as needed. Tabling the update caused clear frustration on the part of some board members and community advocates.

“The agenda needs to be under control,” said Patty Williams of Great Schools in Wake, a diversity advocacy organization.

The progress report on student assignment was scheduled last on the work session agenda, after eight other items of business.

by David Eichenberger.

It was bumped in large part because of a discussion on “board policy versus practice,” which Republican Debra Goldman introduced to the agenda.

Goldman brought forward a list of what she called “perceived or actual policy violations” that ranged from how to determine the amount of time allowed for public comment to meeting preparation policy.

Jim Martin asked that a time limit be placed on the discussion and calls to speed the process came from Republicans as well as Democrats.

But Goldman believes the discussion was extremely valuable.

“It’s important that no matter what we agree or disagree on we are going to adhere to these policies to the letter and in the spirit,” she said at the meeting.

“Can you tell me how this exercise is effective?” asked Vice Chair Keith Sutton, a Democrat. “There are plenty of these examples [of policy] that you’re bringing up that have been violated a number of times over the past two years.”

Martin, a Democrat, frequently challenged the relevance of Goldman’s assertions, beginning his comments “with all due respect.” But Goldman, in the end, countered, “There is no respect here.”

In an interview with the Record, Goldman called Martin’s attitude “condescending and disrespectful.”

Martin on the other hand believes, like Sutton, that Goldman’s extensive attention to the topic amounted to a filibuster.

“To the extent that we can corral some of the conversation and move the agenda along, you may see us trying to do that a little more aggressively in the future,” Sutton said.

He said people shouldn’t read too much into the assignment presentation being bumped.

“In regards to some of the questions we’ve asked, the data is not available yet,” Sutton said in reference to specific feedback, such as what demographics of people are participating in the choice process.

Others, like Martin, believe the postponement was unacceptable.

Information packets on the assignment update were set to be presented at Tuesday’s work session, but school officials informed the Record those handouts would not be made public until the next board meeting on Feb. 21 because they have not yet been provided to board members.

Little Constructive Discussion on Assignment Policy
The frustrated exchanges date back to Jan. 3, as the new Democratic majority on the board was taking over and a conflict arose about a meeting with new board members and Michael Alves, who is often styled as the choice assignment guru.

New board members Jim Martin, Susan Evans and Christine Kushner met with Alves the day after their swearing in to get an update on the controlled-choice assignment plan. Chair Kevin Hill said he considered the meeting part of the new board members orientation process, but minority members voiced their disapproval at length — both at the Jan. 3 and Jan. 10 meeting on student assignment — that they weren’t notified of the meeting.

The Jan. 10 meeting also brought on the flare up of Goldman and Martin’s discord to the point that Superintendent Tony Tata intervened.

As Goldman questioned a critique from Martin that the assignment plan in not a good business plan, she asked for input from Chief Transformation Officer Judy Peppler, who spent much of her career in private business.

As the back and forth intensified, Tata interrupted Martin to say, “You made a very distinct criticism of the plan that it was not a good business plan [and] very public criticism of this staff and so I appreciate the question from Ms. Goldman.”

What is the New Majority’s Agenda?
The board is now set to hear the student assignment update at its Feb. 21 meeting, which is just three days before the first choice round closes. It will be the board’s last opportunity to adjust the plan before families who participated in the first round are officially notified which school they will attend.

The potential change, discussed most by Democrats thus far, has been setting aside seats at high-performing schools for students from low-performing nodes. That potential change was set to be discussed again at last Tuesday’s work session also.

While Sutton and Chair Kevin Hill, the board’s two veteran diversity supporters, have publicly said they would like to see seats set aside in high-performing schools for students from low-performing areas or something like it, they also passed on a chance to instill such a caveat into the plan when staff recommended it at the board’s Jan. 10 meeting.

In this regard, the Democratic majority has yet to voice a cohesive stance on the new plan.

Martin has said he doesn’t think set-asides are the answer and he along with the other two new Democratic board members, Susan Evan and Christine Kushner, all made vague allusions to future changes at Tuesday’s meeting.

Martin would like a control put in place that would keep the schools at their current demographic levels, a stipulation that is already unofficially built into the plan.

Currently, 22 percent of Wake County’s schools are “high-poverty schools”—as defined by schools where more than 50 percent of the student body receiving free or reduced-price lunch, according to data from the school system. These numbers would stay the same.

Evans moved in a different direction, saying, “We will respond to things that warrant immediate response. I can’t promise what we’ll be able to change but I want people to know that we are taking this very seriously.”

Kushner echoed a similar sentiment, but also mentioned that the board would pay very close attention to the data as it became available.

Since the school board decided not to release its current data on the first round of assignment after Tuesday’s meeting, it’s unclear what data will be presented at the Feb. 21 meeting.

Martin feels the new board has been painted into a corner in terms of its ability to implement the choice plan.

“The way this plan has been rolled out makes it difficult to make any changes,” he said. “We have been extremely limited in terms of what is possible.”

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