News: CJ Exclusives

Coalition to Sue Wake Schools

Group calls reassignment plan criteria arbitrary and capricious

After experiencing years of frustration trying to have the Wake County Board of Education address concerns over school reassignment and other policy issues, a coalition of concerned citizens has prepared a lawsuit to stop the board from expanding mandatory year-round conversions for 2007-2008.

Since announcement of the lawsuit, other groups have endorsed Wake CARES’ efforts. Among them are Stop Mandatory Year-Round, the North Carolina Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, and the Apex Chamber of Commerce.

In a letter to the board, dated Feb. 12, 2007, a copy of which is posted on WakeCARES’ Web site, lawyers Robert Hunter, Jr., and Bill Peaslee said that the manner in which students are selected for reassignment is “arbitrary and capricious.” By forcing “some but not all elementary and middle school students and their families to adapt to a year-round calendar,” the school system is failing to provide them the “uniform school system” guaranteed by N.C. law.

Kathleen Brennan, co-founder of WakeCARES, cites examples of how the board makes decisions with “little to no citizen input.” Despite three public hearings in January where hundreds of parents voiced their concerns, Brennan said the board largely ignored them. On Feb. 4, 2007, the Wake County Board of Commissioners, responding to the public outcry, voted to delay funds for the mandatory year-round conversions. Yet, the school board continued to implement its plans.

The school board says mandatory conversions are needed to ease school crowding. Statistics in the school system’s own records as well as reports from an independent audit of the system’s capacity refute that argument, showing there is sufficient capacity for students if no conversions take place and the school board returns “to the maximum capacity of previous years,” Brennan said.

School officials said 10,000 students will be reassigned, but Hunter and Peaslee said the number is closer to 25,000. When pushing for passage of the nearly $1 billion school bond in November, mandatory year-round conversions were not mentioned in the bond referendum, and board members promised to consider alternatives to the conversions.

“Schools of excellence” will continue to be disproportionately affected by school assignment, Brennan said, supporting the argument that the conversions are not uniform and deny students equal opportunity. Critics say such movements allow the school board to artificially adjust school achievement benchmarks to satisfy federal No Child Left Behind requirements.

North Carolina statutes, WakeCARES’ lawyers said, “do allow for a year round calendar based upon educational need of the students, or to accommodate a specialized program of education,” unlike the current proposal that is “geographically based” and “provides mere administrative convenience or, perhaps, is intended to address budgetary concerns.” Students in a mandatory year-round school are denied equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular and educational opportunities. Many parents think they are denied equal representation when the school board member for the school where their child attends is from a different part of the district and parents cannot vote for that member, the lawyers said.

The aim of the lawsuit is to ensure educational excellence and opportunity by giving parents a greater voice in policies and practices that are in the best interest of students and families of Wake County, Brennan said.

Karen McMahan is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.