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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wake school assignment plan v. 3: Return of the Jedi (or, Place Takes Base)

Posted by on Wed, Sep 19, 2012 at 3:22 PM

In our first installment, a.k.a. the 2009 elections, the Republic came under attack by, er, Republicans, who soon overthrew the old regime of student assignments in Wake County's public schools. Diversity as a goal was out. Base assignments were out. Choice was in.


In the sequel, the 2011 elections, the Republic struck back, ousting the Republican majority on the Wake school board. Base assignments were again in favor. Diversity too. Choice? OK, but not so much.

So now it's time for Version 3 of student assignment, which according to the new school board majority's directive, is supposed to have base assignments but also retain the good parts of the Republicans' choice plan. Shades of the Jedi warriors. ("Trust your feelings, Luke.")

An obvious question, going in, is how every student in Wake can be assigned to a base school when there are already students attending schools by choice that aren't going to be their base schools going forward. Wake has 150,000 students. It has capacity in its schools for not much more than 150,000 seats. So if every student gets a base assignment, that will require just about every available seat — and won't that leave many students who are in a school by choice out of luck?

The answer, in the staff proposal presented to the school board last night, is no. If base bumps up against place, place comes first.

So it's possible (likely?) that some students will be assigned to a base school only to find that they can't get in it when the time comes because the school is over-capacity as the result of a lot of grandfathered students who chose to stay plus the newly assigned base contingent.

If that happens, the luckless base students be presented with a list of available "overflow" options.

The fundamental principle of v.3 — call it the New Base Plan — is that if you like the school you're in, you're guaranteed the right to stay in it until you graduate.

It will help a great deal, however, that grandfathering was also a feature of V.2, the Choice Plan. Many students, that is, stayed in their old base school this year when given a choice. So if the new base school is the same as the old base school, then no problem-o.

Putting place ahead of base is "absolutely logical," as board member Susan Evans said, because to do the opposite — kick some students out so newly assigned students can take their place — would make an awful lot of parents most unhappy.

Indeed, the framework set out by Superintendent Tony Tata's team last night was very logical: 1) base assignments are made; 2) students declare whether they want the base assignment or to stay where they are; 3) a choice process follows for magnet schools and leadership academies; 4) transfer applications are entertained, with students allowed to apply to any school in the county that has space available, though admission isn't guaranteed nor is transportation necessarily going to be provided.

All the while, school officials would be re-assessing school capacities, according to a flexible standard. That is, when a school is at 100 percent of capacity, it would be considered full, but not stuffed. Full (a "partial cap") would mean it's closed to all but base-assigned students. Stuffed (a "full cap") would mean it's closed to any more students, period.


So far, so good. It seems like a solid framework, one which such "diverse" board members as Jim Martin and Keith Sutton, on the majority side, and John Tedesco, Chris Malone and Debra Goldman, on the minority side, could all say they liked in general. In fact, every board member seemed to like it in general.

But if it's a good framework, it isn't — to this point anyway — a viable plan. Not yet.

For v.3 to be a plan, it needs a strong diversity element, which thus far it lacks. The staff proposal contains the germ of a diversity element, but it's only that — no details, no heft. Thus, we have the idea of base assignments, but we don't have a process for how we're going to make the base assignments.

Making the base assignments has always, always been the rub.

For that reason, the board majority — and in particular Evans, Martin and Christine Kushner — were right to stop the staff train before it raced into public hearings next week.

They were also right to insist that the policy framework be fleshed out — and the diversity piece given form — before parents are told what their base assignments might be.

Letting the staff publish its online list of base schools by addresses — a list that would be preliminary at best, if only because no board member has even seen it yet, let alone thought about all the ways it needs to be changed — would've been a serious blunder.

That was Tata's intention, apparently, to let parents start looking up their assignments on Friday.

Talk about putting the cart before the horse.

I'll talk more about the missing elements of v.3 in a subsequent post — working title: "Where's the beef?"

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Friday, August 3, 2012

(Updated) Wake schools' test results improved in 2011-12; low-income students show gains. Added: Some thoughts on the so-what?

Posted by on Fri, Aug 3, 2012 at 4:17 PM

[Update, August 3:

Returning to the subject of the good results announced yesterday (i.e., the "what"), let me see if I can add a bit about what they tell us about our school system (i.e., the "so what?"). And especially the so-what when it comes to student assignment and the ongoing "choice" vs. "base assignments" vs. "hybrid base-and-choice" debate.

1) I'm not a statistician, so I won't question the statistical significance of the relatively small gains overall. They are gains, no question about it as far as I know. And the gains were not small with regard to economically disadvantaged (ED) kids. The composite proficiency scores for ED elementary, middle and high school students were all much-improved, with ED elementary jumping from 61.9% proficient to 65.7%, and ED high school proficiency rising from 66.0% to 70.8%. (Composite proficiency combines the reading, math and science scores.)

Superintendent Tony Tata was properly modest in claiming credit. When you're blessed with good news, it's best to share the credit, and that's what he did, repeatedly. "Dedicated principals, teachers, teacher assistants and staff" are the reason the scores went up, Tata said. Put this in your memory bank. Tata said the Wake public school system is a "highly effective organization" and it was his privilege to lead it. (Remember that the next time you hear someone railing about our failing schools.)

2) So that was fun, but why did the scores — and especially the ED scores — improve? What special sauce was added? Answer: Resources.

Resources, meaning: additional money. Meaning: additional staff. Also: Staff reshuffling to put new (presumably better) principals and teachers into the schools that needed them most.

Thus, the four worst performing elementary school of two years ago were overhauled as "Renaissance Schools," complete with new principals (for three of the four) and two-thirds of the faculty also new. Plus new equipment. Plus added teachers, math and literacy tutors and after-school tutoring programs. How was all this paid for? With $9.5 million from the $10.2 million Wake received as part of the state's "Race to the Top" federal grant.

The four, Barwell Road ES, Brentwood Magnet ES, Creech Road ES and Wilburn ES, each have high ED student populations. Sharp improvements in their scores, especially at Barwell and Wilburn, led the way to the elementary ED gains for the system.

Add in Walnut Creek ES, a new school which enrolled a very high ED student population in year one. The Walnut Creek students had poor scores at their old schools. Their overall proficiency rate at Walnut Creek was 60.0%, up 4.7%. Their combined math and reading scores (leaving the science out) was 62.9%, an even more impressive 7.3% gain.

And how did we achieve this at Walnut Creek? Most who follow the school system know by now that the answer is, a hand-picked staff; a longer school day; extra staff as tutors, and a lot of additional money — $450,000 more in local (county) funds alone, Tata said.


3) I don't want to get too far into the weeds of the Wake schools budget here (or I'll get lost). Suffice it to say that the operating budget for the school system has been shrinking in recent years.

I'll attach a PDF that David Neter, the system's top budget guy, sent me a few weeks ago, and you can parse it for yourself. FY08_to_FY12_Operating_History_Budgets_by_Source_w_Per_Pupil_FINAL_in__WCPSS_Budget_format_-_Neter_copy.pdf

As I read it, the operating budget is down $800 per student from the 2008-09 school year to 2012-13 ($8,596 in the former year; $7,796 in the current year). Actual spending is down less, because school leaders were careful to carve out some savings from those past budgets, so that, e.g., actual spending in 2008-09 was just $8,153 — but even with that smaller number as the starting point, per-student funding for 2012-13 will be down a minimum of $357 per student compared to four years ago, and doubtless more than that when the 2011-13 "actual" number comes in.

Moreover, it was increased federal funding (stimulus funding; Race to the Top) that was propping up Wake's school budgets over the past three years. But that money is going away in future years. Meanwhile, state and county funding has been dropping.

In that vein, Tata made a point of underlining the importance of the $21 million a year that Wake's been getting in federal Title I funds — Title I being money for low-income kids. Wake spends all of its Title I funding in the elementary schools. (It's a long-standing policy, he said.) It's hugely helpful to the job of teaching kids to read and do basic arithmetic if they're struggling with same — and especially if they don't have effective parental assistance. But the $21 million is threatened as part of the budget/tax fight in Washington.

Tata's message to Congress and, for that matter, the General Assembly and the Wake Board of Commissioners: "This is working [and the test scores show it]. We need the money. Let's have a hard conversation about the funding of public education."


So, now —

4) In the face of declining budgets, Tata & Co. allocated additional funds to low-performing schools, and the schools got better. Somewhat better. They're still pretty far down the list when you compare them with the many other schools with fewer — and in some cases, few — ED kids.

While the four Renaissance Schools and Walnut Creek were gaining, though, a couple of other schools slipped below the 60% level for proficiency, and many more are stuck in the 60-70% range, which is below the 70% minimum that choice-plan guru Michael Alves said was required to avoid having schools fail under a choice plan for student attendance.

In a choice scheme, parents do indeed choose where they want their kids to go. They won't choose a low-performing school. Not if they're paying attention. Not if they're really given a choice, and not getting stuck with a school that was their fourth or fifth "choice" but they get it because the other, better schools were already full.

The one big advantage of a base-assignment plan is that school officials can fill every school to capacity and balance student populations so that no school is overwhelmed with ...

... and here, the problem isn't ED kids per se, it's kids who aren't scoring well on the tests, but the two things are correlated.

At the end of year one of the choice-plan experiment, some Wake schools were over-chosen and some were under-chosen — meaning that for whatever reason parents didn't want the latter, and consequently, those schools will open in 2012-13 with fewer students than they can hold. Which means the over-chosen schools are more crowded than they need to be.

Which is expensive. (Why? Because you need more schools if you don't fill the ones you have.)

And, as we've seen, fixing under-chosen, under-performing schools is expensive.

If Wake County had a better track record of providing funds for our school system, maybe those two facts wouldn't matter as much as they do. But Wake County's performance when it comes to putting money into our schools is — you know.

What does this mean for student assignment? I leave that to you.


What follows is the original post from 8/2 on the test results themselves —

Wake school officials will be talking with reporters this afternoon about what they think it all means — and why the test results are improved. No doubt, people will be pawing through these scores for weeks trying to discern their meaning for the big decisions the school board has ahead, including a new student assignment scheme for 2013-14 and another school construction bond referendum, probably next year and probably large ($1 billion-plus?).

So I'l come back to this subject later. For now, here's what the school system released this morning about the 2011-12 school year and how our kids did on the various reading, math and science tests:

Academic gains continue in the Wake County Public School System

Wake County students at every grade span made steady academic gains in 2011-12, according to newly released results from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. In addition to district-wide increases in proficiency, Economically Disadvantaged students in Wake County demonstrated the highest levels of proficiency in math and reading that they have achieved under the state's current testing model. Non-Economically Disadvantaged students showed impressive gains, as well.

Thursday's results are part of a comprehensive report that uses End-of-Course (EOC) and End-of-Grade (EOG) tests and other information to measure school performance under the N.C. ABCs of Public Education and the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The results show that in 2011-12:

WCPSS elementary students demonstrated an overall proficiency rate of 82.1 percent, a gain of 1.9 points from the previous year.

WCPSS middle-school students demonstrated an overall proficiency rate of 82.1 percent, a gain of .9 points from the previous year.

WCPSS high-school students demonstrated an overall proficiency rate of 85.8 percent, an increase of 2.5 points from the previous year.

“We thank all of our dedicated principals, teachers, school-based and central office staff for their superb accomplishments and hard work,” Superintendent Tony Tata said.

EOC and EOG results

District wide gains:

The percentage of students showing proficiency in reading, math and science increased in every grade level and subject tested, except for one—7th-grade math.

Third graders showed the most improvement, gaining 2.4 points in math and 2.2 points in reading.

Proficiency rates for Algebra I, Biology and English I End-of-Course tests also increased.

Gains for Economically Disadvantaged (ED) students:
Economically Disadvantaged students are defined as those who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

The percentage of ED students demonstrating proficiency in reading, math and science increased in every grade level and subject tested, except for 7th-grade math.

At the elementary level, the proficiency rate of ED students increased four points to 66 percent

At the middle-school level, the proficiency rate of ED students increased two points to 64 percent

At the high-school level, the proficiency rate of ED students increased five points to 71 percent

Additionally, economically disadvantaged students in grades 3 through 8 demonstrated the highest levels of proficiency in math and reading tests since test standards were raised in those subject areas (Math was reset in 2006, reading was reset in 2008)

Economically Disadvantaged high-school students also demonstrated the highest level of proficiency since the school system began reporting on this subgroup 10 years ago.

Some of the most significant gains occurred in some of the school system’s most challenged schools. The school system’s Renaissance elementary schools saw remarkable gains in overall proficiency. Barwell Road students achieved a 9.7-point gain and Wilburn students achieved a 7.7-point gain. These schools benefited in 2011-12 from staffing changes, technology upgrades and schedule flexibility.

Recognition under the ABCs of Public Education

The ABCs of Public Education are state measures of the performance of individual schools across North Carolina.

The ABCs use year-end test results and other information to measure student performance and determine whether a school is improving each year.

71 percent of WCPSS schools showed proficiency gains overall in 2011-12, compared to 63 percent the previous year.

93 percent of WCPSS schools achieved Expected Growth or High Growth.

110 schools made High Growth

An additional 42 schools made Expected Growth

The state named 23 schools as Honor Schools of Excellence or Schools of Excellence, the highest recognitions possible under the ABCs; This is an increase from 17 schools the previous year.

Honor Schools of Excellence include Alston Ridge, Briarcliff, Cedar Fork, Davis Drive, Highcroft Drive, Jones Dairy, Mills Park, Morrisville, Olive Chapel, Sycamore Creek and Willow Springs elementary schools; Apex, Davis Drive, Heritage, Lufkin Road, Mills Park and Salem middle schools; and Panther Creek High and Wake Early College of Health and Science. The state recognizes Honor Schools of Excellence for having at least 90 percent of students performed at or above grade level, meeting Expected Growth, and meeting all of their federal Annual Measurable Objectives requirements for subgroups.

Schools of Excellence include Green Hope Elementary, as well as Green Hope and Holly Springs high schools and the Wake NC State STEM Early College High School. The state recognizes Schools of Excellence for having at least 90 percent of students performed at or above grade level and meeting at least Expected Growth. The state rates other schools as Schools of Distinction, Schools of Progress, Priority Schools, or No Recognition Schools based on student testing results.

Performance under No Child Left Behind

Federal standards under No Child Left Behind measure end-of-year proficiency for selected subgroups of students at schools. For the first time this year, the performance of those subgroups is measured with Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO), replacing what was known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Instead of meeting or failing to meet AYP, schools will now be evaluated based on the number of Annual Measurable Objectives students meet in each measurable subgroup.

According to the newly released 2011-12 results, 84 of 164 schools met all of their Annual Measurable Objectives. An additional 41 schools missed reaching 100 percent of their Annual Measurable Objectives by one or two targets.

Graduation Rates

According to data released Thursday, 80.8 percent of WCPSS students who entered high school as part of the Class of 2012 graduated within four years. This figure is likely to fluctuate after a standard correction period, and could change when the state issues a final report later this year.

The WCPSS graduation rate for the Class of 2011 was 80.4, and was adjusted to 80.9 after the standard correction period.

Statewide, 80.2 percent of students who entered high school as part of the Class of 2012 graduated within four years, according to the data released Thursday.

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    Here's what the school system released this morning about the 2011-12 school year and how our kids did on the various reading, math and science tests.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

N.C. House District 35 race: It's not for a seat on the Wake school board, and yet —

Posted by on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 1:33 PM

With redistricting, N.C. House District 35 is essentially new and wide open, with no incumbent in residence. The Republican nominee is Chris Malone, who lives in Wake Forest and is currently a member of the Wake County school board — one of the four who remain from the erstwhile Margiotta Majority. (Now, with ex-board chair Ron Margiotta ousted, they could be known as the Malone Minority.) The Democratic nominee is former Wake school board member Lori Millberg, who lives in Wendell and who served before Margiotta & his Republican mates took control in 2009.

I just looked at the stats: District 35 is 37% registered Democrats and 37% registered Republicans, with a handful of Libertarians and the rest unaffiliated.

Should be a close contest, maybe turning on which candidate mounts the more motivated, better-organized campaign?

Which is all by way of introducing Millberg's campaign manager, Michael Evans.

Yes, he's the Michael Evans who was chief spokesman for the Wake school system when Millberg was in the majority. Evans was replaced when Margiotta's Republicans brought in Tony Tata as superintendent.

This just in from the Millberg campaign:

Millberg Names Campaign Manager for N.C. House Race

(June 21, 2012)— Lori Millberg, candidate for N.C. House District 35 today announced the addition of Michael Evans as Campaign Manager.

Evans who has 28 years of public relations, marketing and communications management experience served as Chief Communications Officer for the Wake County Public School System from 2002 until 2011. Millberg worked with Evans during her tenure on the Wake County Board of Education.

“I am thrilled to have Michael join my campaign team,” Millberg said. “His communications and organizational experience, and understanding of Wake County will be invaluable as I continue my work for the citizens of Wake County and House District 35.”

In this role, Evans will work directly with Millberg and her campaign team organizing and managing the day-to-day operations of her race to the N.C. House of Representatives for District 35. The N.C. House District 35 is a new district that encompasses parts of Northern, Northeastern and Eastern Wake County. The District also includes the towns of Rolesville, Wake Forest, and parts of Knightdale, Wendell, and Zebulon.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Today: Transit advocates want Wake Commissioners to give 1/2-cent tax a chance (w/ an update: "Fails")

Posted by on Mon, Jun 18, 2012 at 9:03 AM

[Update, 6/19: Here are a few paragraphs from a story I wrote today for this week's Indy

First and foremost, Wake County will not vote in November on a ½-cent sales tax increase for transit, the only funding mechanism provided for local governments by the General Assembly. Wake County’s Republican-led Board of Commissioners continues to block the vote. Orange County voters will get to decide the question this fall. Durham voters approved the ½-cent tax last year; the county is waiting for one of its two Triangle partners to join it.

But the Wake board not only won’t allow the public to vote, it has refused to even listen to the transit plan put together—at its direction—by County Manager David Cooke and David King, general manager of the Triangle Transit Authority, working with Wake’s 12 municipal governments.

“Nah,” was Wake Commissioners Chair Paul Coble’s dismissive response when a Democratic member, Erv Portman, asked two weeks ago that the Cooke-King plan, on the shelf all year, be presented to the board in a work session this month.

On Monday, Portman made an impassioned argument in favor of at least discussing the plan in coming weeks—and scheduling a public hearing—while there’s still time to consider whether to place the sales-tax increase on the ballot this fall. Portman’s two fellow Democrats, Betty Lou Ward and James West, agreed, saying Wake’s voters have a right to decide on the plan—and the tax.

They were outvoted by the four Republican members, however. None of the Republicans said anything until Coble, after the 4-3 vote, delivered a one-word epitaph: “Fails.”

Coble’s word was the last, dispiriting one in a meeting that began five hours earlier and was dominated by dozens of citizens who spoke during the public comment period, pleading with or demanding that the commissioners allow the 1/2-cent tax to go to referendum.

By the time the commissioners voted, after first considering a landfill permit and other routine business, most of the citizens were gone.

“The Wake transit plan has been on the table since last November,” the Capital Area Friends of Transit, a citizens group, complained in a statement the next day, “yet the board majority has blatantly stalled it, refusing to put this to a vote or referendum of the people.”


The original post is below —

Transit advocates are planning to be at the Wake County Board of Commissioners meeting today (2 p.m., Wake Courthouse) asking them to put the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit on the November ballot. (A statement from Capital Area Friends of Transit is appended below.) Is there any chance that will happen?

But that's not the right question just yet. The better question — because it's the only one with a chance of getting a positive response — is whether the Commissioners will listen to and actually consider the Wake plan developed by the Triangle Transit Authority and their own county manager, David Cooke.

If Cooke is allowed to present the plan in the next several weeks, it could start a process by which one or more of the four Republican commissioners begins to think about the benefits of transit, not just the costs.

No guarantee of that, of course; and in fact, the more likely outcome is that Cooke presents (or doesn't) and the Republican opposition remains unchanged.

But it seems to me a certainty that, if pushed to say, today, if they'll allow the 1/2-cent tax to go to referendum in 2012, the Republicans' answer will be no. A flat, final no.

Commissioners Chair Paul Coble is already dug in on the question. If he stays dug in, it forces Tony Gurley, Joe Bryan and Phil Matthews to either back him up or go against him — and they won't go against him.

On the other hand, it would be reasonable for Coble to move to a position of "let the voters decide ... let's get it over with." In fact, I can imagine Coble wanting to do just that, if the advocates back off just a bit and ask, not for a referendum, but simply a report, with a public hearing and process of genuine consideration to follow about whether to go to referendum this year.


Two reasons why I think the Coble-GOP majority might want to allow a vote this year:

1) 2012 is the year when a transit referendum in Wake is least likely to amp up progressive voter turnout and threaten Republican candidates running on the same ballot. If the vote is pushed back to 2013, it would presumably be held in October, coincidental with the traditionally low-turnout Raleigh and Cary elections and school board elections in districts where the Republicans will expect to win — but not if there's an increased turnout of Democrats supporting transit.

Then in 2014, the four Republican commissioners themselves are up for re-election.

2012, on the other hand, promises to be a big turnout year for Democrats regardless of a transit referendum because it's a presidential election year and the Obama campaign is going all-out in Wake County. The three Wake Commissioners seats on the ballot are already held by Democrats, so the Republicans will retain control when they lose them, as they will.

The Republicans won't be worse off, in other words. Except if they hate transit that much.

2) After the July 17 runoff elections, Tony Gurley may well be the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. Until the runoff, the chances Gurley will vote to put a transit tax on the ballot — emphasis on the word tax — are zero. It just can't happen while he's running in a statewide Republican primary. But after the runoff, if he wins, Gurley will surely want to appeal to independent voters. And what better way than to take the very reasonable position that transit has its virtues and anyway, the General Assembly said the voters should decide on the 1/2-cent, so by golly, independent-thinking Tony Gurley is going to let them!


A lovely theory, I know, especially regarding Gurley. "It's probably wishful thinking" to believe he'd ever vote for a November referendum, he told me on Friday. Transit's important, he added, but other priorities rank higher for him, and we're in a recession.

Still, Gurley said, if the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce asked him to back a referendum because the transit plan would be good for business in Wake County, "I would think about it. It doesn't cost me anything to think about it."


As for the Chamber, CEO Harvey Schmitt has been telling transit advocates — as he did in an email one shared with me — that his organization is pro-transit (though it has no formal position on the David Cooke/TTA plan). But, as Schmitt also wrote:

"... it is our considered opinion that the Board of Commission majority will not be swayed by pressure to take action at this point in time and indeed shows of force will be responded to by reactions that will make it harder to succeed."

In other words, Gurley can — and does — point to "lukewarm" support for a November referendum from the Chamber ... and the Chamber says its lukewarm is because Gurley, Coble & Co. won't be swayed whatever they do.

Remember, if a referendum is held, it falls mainly to the Chamber to raise the money for a pro-transit campaign, which will be much harder to do if the Republican Party is united in opposition. Ideally, a referendum would have bipartisan support. Failing that, it would have enough support that the other side doesn't fight it.

I talked with Schmitt late Friday afternoon. He wants to "de-escalate" the debate, he said. "My hope is that we can get through this in a way that we can continue the conversation [about transit]. We should have that conversation."

That'd be my hope as well. I know from experience that very few people are well-informed about what's in the transit plan and what they'd be getting for their 1/2-cent. For all the focus on light-rail routes, the truth is the plan is mostly buses. Commuter buses and commuter trains to carry people into and out of Raleigh-Cary-RTP for work. It shouldn't really be controversial.

Call me naive, but it seems like if Cooke made his presentation in the next three weeks, and a public hearing were held in July to air the costs and benefits of the plan, and if Gurley wins his runoff, then a consensus might form by early August around the idea that transit would be good for business, and building a transit system over the next decade in Wake County could be a major jobs-producer for Raleigh and its suburbs.

August is late for a referendum campaign to begin. But if it follows on a consensus-building process that begins today, it needn't be too late. (I've changed this sentence on reflection — I said late August initially, but with early voting, I think the schedule moves up some.)


Continue reading…

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Paul Coble on the need to consider transit: "Nah."

Posted by on Wed, Jun 6, 2012 at 1:14 PM

Orange County will be voting on the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit in November. That decision was made by the Orange County Board of Commissioners last night.

Durham County, of course, has already passed the 1/2-cent tax in a referendum.

And Wake? On Monday, at the Board of Commissioners meeting, Democrat Erv Portman urged that the subject of the tax and transit's future be put on their agenda for next week's work session. Specifically, Portman asked that County Manager David Cooke give a presentation on the updated Wake transit plan, something Portman said could be done in 30 minutes or so.

A presentation by Cooke would start a process that could result in Wake County also voting in November — at the same time as Orange County — on the 1/2-cent tax issue. Delaying Cooke's report any longer, Portman said, probably means killing the transit-tax question for 2012 without the BOC even discussing it.

To which Chairman Paul Coble, speaking for the Republican majority, said dismissively: "Nah."

He didn't say no. The word Coble used was — nah.

"We are not driven by the desires of special interest groups to put something on the ballot," Coble added a bit later.


Before this exchange occurred — it came at the very end of Monday's meeting — I spoke with County Manager David Cooke about the status of the Wake transit plan. Cooke brought a finished proposal to the BOC on November 14. That's going on seven months ago. The BOC heard it and set it aside.

Since then, Cooke and David King, general manager of Triangle Transit, have visited every municipal government in the county presenting the plan and getting their feedback. The feedback has been positive.

The munis haven't raised a lot of issues with the plan, Cooke said, probably because it represents "a compilation" of what they asked for in the first place — through their representatives at CAMPO.

"It's not my plan," Cooke said, when I asked him whether he regards it as his, or his and King's. "It is meant to be a bottom-up plan based on what people see as the needs of the future."


That certainly describes the bus portion of the plan, which is all the 1/2-cent tax is going to pay for — at least for several years.

The rail portion, as Cooke said, contains the routes and service frequencies that Triangle Transit has concluded from its federally funded "alternative analysis" are the most feasible for the region should federal and state funding be available to build them.

A commuter-rail line from Garner to Durham could be operational within a decade, with stops about three miles apart and focused on bringing folks to work in downtown Raleigh, downtown Cary, RTP and downtown Durham.

A light-rail system within Wake County, with stops a mile apart or less — and much more frequent service than the commuter-rail line — is more than a decade away, probably a lot more.

(If Orange County passes the 1/2-cent tax, light-rail service between Chapel Hill and Durham will be running years before anything gets on the ground in Cary-Raleigh.)

But to be clear, the decision about whether or not to approve a 1/2-cent transit tax in Wake County isn't about whether Wake will build rail lines. It will build them if it has a 1/2-cent tax ... and if federal and state money is available ... and if the BOC decides that it wants them.

In the first place, though, the 1/2-cent tax is about buses, and whether Wake County will have the money to support the improved system of bus transportation that the local officials in every municipality are saying they need.

This is the decision that Coble and the Republican majority on the BOC are not only stopping the public from making, but are refusing even to talk about in time to keep the possibility of a referendum alive this year.

This, as Portman says, is after the BOC made a decision about the transit tax part of its work plan for 2010, but didn't discuss it ... and for 2011, but didn't discuss it ... and it's part of the work plan for 2012, and they're not discussing it.


Is Cooke ready to make a presentation? I asked. (Remember, this was before the Portman-Coble exchange.)

"We're still working on some final numbers," Cooke said. "But the plan's not going to be modified greatly, based on the feedback from the municipalities, so we could essentially do that [present it] at any time."

Interestingly, if you go to the Wake County website, you'll find a concise summary of the report from November with a link to the full (58 MB) version.

It outlines next steps: 1) Visits with the munis; 2) BOC considers their feedback in the spring; 3) BOC decides whether to call for a November referendum.

Where I come from, spring means March to May, and June is summer. But even if you think June is late spring, the BOC — led by Coble and Tony Gurley, who's in a runoff in July for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor (Motto: Why do we need any taxes?) — is refusing to do its job.

Here's the plan's outline for spending:

Wake County’s share of the five-year bus plan would be $138.3 million of the total $344 million cost for both capital and operating. Bus services currently receive some state and federal funding, which would cover the remainder.

Commuter rail would cost $650 million. Wake County’s share would be $330 million, and Durham would pay $320 million. Commuter rail is projected to be in place in 2019 or 2020.

Light rail is estimated to cost $1.1 billion (2011 dollars), to construct the rail line and pay for stations and park-and-ride lots. Operating costs would be $14 million per year. This portion of the Transit Plan will not be implemented without state and federal funding.

With the 1/2-cent sales tax added to existing funding streams from federal and state sources, Wake County could afford its bus plan and the commuter-rail element of the rail plan, Cooke told me. Light-rail is what's costly, and it can't be done without new funding from federal and sources to cover 75 percent of projected costs.

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

WakeUP to Paul Coble & Co: Stop blocking a public vote on the 1/2-cent transit tax for Wake

Posted by on Thu, May 31, 2012 at 4:10 PM

It's been three years since the General Assembly passed the bill allowing voters in Wake, Durham and Orange counties to decide whether they want to build a public transit system, i.e., add a 1/2-cent sales tax for transit in their respective counties.

Durham voters approved the 1/2-cent tax last year. The vote in the referendum was lopsided in favor.

Orange hasn't voted yet, but the Orange commissioners are expected to put the question on the ballot this year.


And then there's Wake.

Wake hasn't voted, and unless the solid bloc of Republicans (Chairman Paul Coble & Co.) opposed to letting us vote cracks a little, we're not going to be allowed to vote this year ...

... and we probably won't be allowed to vote next year either, because next year is ticketed for a much-needed Wake schools bond referendum.

This is, quite simply, not acceptable. The Republicans who control the Wake Board of Commissioners don't have to be in favor of transit. They can put the question on the ballot this year and urge everyone to vote no if they like. (They had no trouble urging everybody to vote yes on the Amendment One question; fortunately, 57 percent of Wake voters disagreed with them.) But by blocking a vote, they're thwarting the public will — and the law.

And by the way, Durham's tax isn't effective until a second county OK's it too. (That's the law.) But if Durham and Orange approve the tax and Wake doesn't, stay tuned for progress on a light-rail line from Chapel Hill to Durham, and a modern bus system in the western part of the Triangle, leaving CAry, Raleigh and points east to choke on our cars and overpriced gasoline fumes.

So today, WakeUP Wake County, the good government group, is out with a poll showing strong support in the electorate for transit and for a transit tax — and WakeUP is calling on the Wake Commissioners to get out of the way and let the voters decide. Here's their piece:

Poll Shows Strong Support for Wake Transit Plan and Half Cent Sales Tax

Wake voters would support the Wake transit plan and a half cent sales tax to pay for an expanded transit system of bus and rail, according to a recent poll commissioned by WakeUP Wake County. Of those polled, 66% support a proposed plan to double bus service, add bus shelters, create commuter rail between Wake and Durham Counties, and initiate steps for light rail. Sixty percent said they would be willing to pay a half cent sales tax increase to pay for this new transit system.

What’s more, Wake voters appear ready to vote on this sales tax for transit this November with 59% strongly supporting having the opportunity to vote this November on a ballot question of dedicating the half-cent sale tax to transit and an additional 19% would somewhat support this action. Durham County voters approved this transit tax by 60% last November, and Orange County Commissioners are strongly considering putting this same measure on their ballot this November. Approval by Orange and Wake County would have a very positive impact on moving the Triangle forward in efforts to improve transportation options.

“What this poll demonstrates is that once people learn what’s in the transit proposal, they are willing to pay for it,” said Ross Massey, engineer and WakeUP Wake County Board Member and Transportation & Land Use Team Leader. “The poll tells us that support for transit is strong and that Wake citizens understand transit is good for economic development and growth planning. This is especially true for our younger citizens; 76% of those aged 18-29 supported the sales tax for transit. With gas prices high and population due to double, now is the time to move forward. Because 2012 is a presidential election year, voter turnout will be higher than usual allowing a strong and vibrant view of the true will of Wake County citizens," Massey added.

The poll was a survey of 644 Wake voters contacted between May 18-20. Public Policy Polling (PPP) conducted the poll. PPP’s polls on the Wake school board elections last year proved to be accurate assessments of the voters’ actions.

Public Policy Polling of Raleigh did the poll for WakeUP. Questions and responses are here.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dems: Dan Blue out for governor, running again for Senate

Posted by on Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 6:09 PM

And to the list of Democrats not running for governor, add the name of state Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake.

His statement, as quoted by the N&O::

“After long and very deep thought, I have decided not to run for governor,” Blue said in a statement. “But I am greatly moved by and want to thank the hundreds of people who called, emailed and talked to me about mounting a campaign. I am forever grateful.''
“As we look to our future,” Blue said, “its going to take a lot of discussion, deliberation, determination and thoughtful decisions, and we have to be focused on education and enhancing opportunities for all the people of our state.
“I believe several of the state Democratic gubernatorial candidates share this conviction and either can successfully move this state forward. Whoever win the nomination is going to need a strong General Assembly to help translate his ideas into effective policy. And I pledge to be a fearless advocate in the Senate to help our Democratic governor get and keep our state on the right track.''

Bllue hasn't filed as yet for his Senate seat in District 14, but obviously he plans to do so tomorrow. No one else has filed in either party.

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Dems: Erv Portman running for state Senate, Caroline Sullivan for his Wake Commissioners seat

Posted by on Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 5:44 PM

In state Senate District 17, southwestern Wake, the incumbent Republican Richard Stevens isn't running, and this afternoon Democrat Erv Portman, a county commissioner, filed for the seat. Apparently that "Draft Portman movement" I mentioned last week came true. Portman, unopposed thus far, will likely face Tamara Barringer, a Republican activist and the only GOP candidate to file — with one more day to go.

Senate 17 is a Republican-learning district, but no so much that a Democrat couldn't take it away if the wind is right. Especially with a formidable candidate, which Portman certainly is.

A business owner, Portman is a former Cary Town Council member who was appointed to the Wake commissioners board when Stan Norwalk retired.

Filing to replace Portman in his commissioners district today: Democrat Caroline Sullivan, a Raleigh PTA leader with a solid track record as a fundraiser for various nonprofit groups.

She'll run from District 4. Democratic incumbents James West and Betty Lou Ward are running for re-election from Districts 5 and 6, respectively.

I say "from" because, though a candidate must live in his or her district, the voting for every district is countywide. Commissioners serve four-year terms.

Incredibly, with one day left to file, only one Republican is a candidate for any commissioners seat: Paul Fitts, in District 6, has put his name in to run against Ward. He ran unsuccessfully for Raleigh City Council last year.

Nonetheless, even if they don't win any of the three commissioners seats on the ballot this year, the Republicans will retain their 4-3 majority on the board — all four Republicans, including Chair Paul Coble, were elected in 2010.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

[Update] Tata apologizes to Evans and Kushner, admits he messed up

Posted by on Fri, Feb 24, 2012 at 8:14 PM

Tony Tata and Ron Margiotta at a Wake County Taxpayers Association meeting - FILE PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

Updating this post from two days ago

School Superintendent Tony Tata met with board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner today for a heart-to-heart. One of those frank discussions. Board chair Kevin Hill was there also. Tata apologized for flying off the email handle and acknowledged that nothing Evans & Kushner did violated any ethics standard, as he'd suggested. Board Attorney Ann Majestic was there as well. Her statement that she'd have to research whether there was an ethics violation didn't help — she signed on as well to the obvious: There was no ethics violation. Not even close.

Here the joint statement they released:

Board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner; Board Chair, Kevin Hill; Superintendent Tony Tata; and Board attorney, Ann Majestic met today and had a serious, frank, and constructive conversation to discuss events of the past week. We all agreed that Ms. Evans and Ms. Kushner have not violated any ethical rules or principles in their work as board members. Mr. Tata has apologized to these board members for suggesting otherwise and has acknowledged that he should have handled his concerns in a different manner. We recognize the importance of a positive working relationship between the Board and the Superintendent and are all committed to working together on behalf of our students and our community.


Kevin L. Hill, Board Chair

Susan P. Evans, Board Member

Christine Kushner, Board Member

Tony Tata, Superintendent

Ann Majestic, Board Attorney


The original post:

Screaming headlines in the N&O would lead us to believe that Earth has been attacked (Arm the Giant Font!) and somehow two members of the Wake school board are stopping Tony Tata from defending his schools against the enemy. The enemy being an alien force calling itself the Great Schools in Wake coalition.

As someone said this morning, let's all not forget to breathe.

In fact, what happened is that Tata, the schools superintendent, pitched a little fit in the form of an email and subsequent statement, both designed for public consumption, attacking Susan Evans and Christine Kushner for associating with people who don't agree with him about student assignment. No large weapons were discharged — to my knowledge.

Before I say why I think Tata's attack was so completely wrong-headed, let me first observe that Tata is obviously nervous about the rollout of his new student assignment plan — the choice plan — and how it's going. I get that. I'm nervous about it, and it isn't even my plan, although I have generally supported it with one big caveat that I've written about before.

Tata's nervous, everybody who's supported him is nervous, the people who brought him the plan (the Wake Chamber of Commerce and Wake Education Partnership) should be nervous, and nobody is more nervous than Evans, Kushner and Jim Martin, the new three school board members elected in October. The only people who aren't nervous are the Republican board members who took Tata's plan, stripped it of a key diversity ("achievement") element, and after setting in motion last fall, made plans to get out of Dodge, i.e., run for other political offices, while the getting was good.

Evans and Kushner, in particular, were active in the Great Schools in Wake coalition, which did not support the plan, though as anyone who followed the group will understand, some members were highly critical of it and others were thinking it might be OK if amended in one or two fundamental ways to restore what the Republicans took out.

I think it's fair to say that Evans and Kushner (and Martin) were in that latter category. This choice plan was underway when they were elected. They considered whether it should be stopped or delayed, say, for a year. But they didn't stop it. Presumably they could've, since the two holdover Democrats on the board, Kevin Hill and Keith Sutton, voted against the plan when the Republicans adopted it. Evans, Kushner and Martin chose not to stop it, however, which is why they as much as anyone are nervous today as a plan that they didn't initiate and didn't fully support unfolds for better or worse on their watch.

So what's wrong with Tata's attack? Plain and simple, it was ridiculous for two reasons.

First, he attacked Evans and Kushner for being part of a citizens group while being board members. Both have said they stopped being active in GSIW when they took office, but what if they didn't? What if they continued to attend meetings of the GSIW coalition just as Ron Margiotta continued to attend meetings of the Wake County Taxpayers Association when he was on the board? What if Evans and Kushner continued to attend Democratic Party meetings just as Margiotta, John Tedesco, Debra Goldman and Chris Malone did — and do — as board members. The last three are running for political office in Republican primaries.

And our takeaway should be, so what? It's a free country. School board members don't take vows of political or civic chastity when they take their seats. They do pledge not to let their votes be controlled by a political or civic group, and the fact is, Evans, Kushner and Martin have voted consistently against the wishes of the Great Schools in Wake coalition's leadership since they assumed office.

Second, Tata attacked Evans, Kushner and Martin for discussing — with some emails back and forth — whether the choice plan should be stopped. Earth to Superintendent Tata: Board members are allowed to talk with one another. They are allowed to talk in groups. The only thing not allowed is a private meeting (or, I gather, email exchange) to which a majority of board members are party — i.e., five members in this case since the full board has nine members.

To suggest that board members are barred from talking with each other about important school issues and how to address them except when they're sitting at the board table in an official session is ludicrous. Moreover, anyone with experience about a school board or city council functions will understand that the members had better compare notes beforehand, because the agenda and pace of their public meetings will be controlled by the Superintendent and his staff or the City Manager and his staff.


Tata thinks Great Schools in Wake is persecuting him. Although he "could not care less" about that, he clearly cares too much — way too much. GSIW's leaders, especially Yevonne Brannon, are highly critical of Tata. General, that comes with the territory. School assignment is a battlefield in Wake County and has been for years. But on this battlefield, it's not a war between one army led by former Brig. Gen. Tata and another army led by Commander Brannon.

On this battlefield, there are many, myriad forces thinking they know what's best for Wake County, and victory consists of finding consensus among as many as possible while continuing to reach out — and always listening respectfully — to those who disagree. Listening, even, when they're coming at you with information that you'd don't think is accurate. (But are you so sure there isn't something of value in it?)

That's why being a successful political leader — and being school superintendent is as political a job as it gets — is not the same as being an Army general. I continue to believe that Tony Tata knows the difference. But knowing it is one thing. Doing it when the pressure is on and the criticisms of you are coming fast and furious is something else.

It's that something else, however, that leadership requires.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tedesco announces ... that he may announce

Posted by on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 at 3:09 PM

John Tedesco, Wake school board member, just issued a statement about his possible candidacy for state Schools Superintendent, Republican nomination division. The statement: JT will announce next Thursday — Jan. 26 — whether he's announcing his candidacy. Happy as always to help with his publicity:


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