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School Districts? Planning? Wake's elephants in view

Is the Wake County school system destined to be broken up into districts (or perhaps, to use Cary Mayor Glen Lang's term, "baby zones")? So far, the debate over school reassignment policies has been conducted in the abstract terms of diversity and parental choice. School leaders want a relatively free hand to reassign students so that all schools have roughly the same balance of well-off and poor kids. Parents whose children are reassigned want more choice in the matter.

An obvious response is districts. Cary, for example, might be its own district, or Cary-Apex. Raleigh could be a district, or two or three. Students could be reassigned, but only in the same zone. Wake County has 104,000 students, with 3,000 more every year. How many baby zones is that?

The idea of districts, though, is so at odds with the consensus that's held since the Raleigh and Wake systems merged three decades ago that it's rarely said straight out--until now. Under the heading "Fragile Unity," a new report by the Wake Education Partnership acknowledges the elephant in the room: "Some have called for breaking ... into smaller units so that parents and municipalities might have greater control over the public schools."

And just who's behind the elephant? The same day as the report, the Joint Mayors' Task Force on School Reassignment, comprising Lang, Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly, Garner Mayor Sam Bridges and their appointees, convened to talk about who picks school sites. Lang and Weatherly want to do the picking out west, giving developers the chance to put "community schools" in their new subdivisions.

Problem is, those subdivisions are all upscale, as Bridges pointed out. "I don't want to abandon diversity," he said. But that's what creating a western district would do, unless their towns are willing to require subsidized housing in new developments, Bridges said.

The Wake Partnership, a business-oriented group, is neutral. It issued a "call to action" for community leaders to become well-informed. But it did so at a meeting dominated by speakers who lauded the performance of the intact Wake system. One, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington, said Wake County is a national model. "What you are doing here is really astounding," he said.

Wake's policy is no school with more than 20 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of family poverty. Let any school get tagged as "high poverty," Kahlenberg warned, and it will spiral downward regardless what the school system does.

This fall, voters will elect five of the Wake school board's nine members. Budget issues may get more ink, but the fundamental question is a unified system or its breakup. Ironically, one factor favoring a unified system is that board members are elected by districts, and not--as the county commissioners are--in countywide balloting.

Members answerable only to their own district's voters have tended to negotiate with each other for informal reassignment limits, reducing the pressure for a breakup. Apex Mayor Weatherly, a Republican, wants to change that and elect the entire board at-large. Why? A conservative sweep countywide could bring in a pro-districts majority in one election, sweeping all doubts--and minority voters--aside.


What? Us Plan?

Interesting how dubious the Raleigh Planning Commission is about, well, planning. The 11-member commission is appointed by the City Council to advise on zoning cases and development policies. Because the council's been so conservative for the last decade, so are most commission members. They yield to "market forces"--letting developers have their head, in other words.

That distrust was apparent Monday when a committee headed by the commission's main planning advocate, architect Thomas Crowder, made its report about PDDs--the controversial Planned Development Districts ordinance (see "Can This Man Make Raleigh a Real City?" March 12). Crowder called them "political development districts." The PDD was invented, he said, because the city's hoary, suburban-oriented zoning code disallows the kind of urban buildings--up close to the sidewalks, with offices and housing above street-level stores--that Raleigh needs inside the Beltline.

Crowder's committee argued that Raleigh should write itself an urban-form zoning code for downtown neighborhoods, establishing desired building scales, encouraging mixed-use projects and fostering walkable streets. A code would offer predictability, it said, ending incessant developer-versus-neighborhood wars. Meanwhile, PDDs should be dropped except in suburban locales.

"But then are we taking all the innovation out?" wondered Jessie Taliaferro, a member who--like Crowder--is a candidate for a council seat in the fall. Scott Cutler, marketing VP for Clancy & Theys, a big construction engineering firm, said he was "skeptical" about government-driven codes, adding that perhaps an "ad hoc, flexible process may work better." Better than planning? EndBlock

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