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Accreditation Agency Has Stern Words for Wake County

A few days after I visited Wake County for an article on the controversial dismantling of their socioeconomics-based school assignment policy, auditors from the accrediting agency AdvancEd visited the 143,000-student district to write their own report on the recent developments.

The 15-page AdvanceEd report, released March 16, is unsparing in its assessment of who it believes should take the blame for the community uproar over changes to the school assignment policy. From the report:

"Over the past 14 months, the Wake County Public Schools have experienced significant governance issues that have caused tremendous uncertainty throughout the community.

"This period of instability began during the Board of Education meeting on December 1, 2009. At the beginning of this meeting, four new Board members (John Tedesco, Chris Malone, Debra Goldman, and Deborah Prickett) were installed as a result of the October 2009 election.

"Once installed, the four new Board members joined forces with current Board member Ron Margiotta to launch a premeditated act that resulted in destabilizing the school system and community."

The report goes on to say that the bloc of board members did not follow the advice of professional educators and ignored those educators' concerns about negative consequences of dismantling the school assignment policy, which tried to limit the number of low-income students at any one school.

"Rather than consulting with the system's leader to elicit feedback from professional staff ... the five board members summarily took action to end the practice," the report says.

Mark Elgart, the president and CEO of AdvancEd, said that the critical report was intentionally written to be crystal clear where the six-person team of auditors saw problems. In other audits, he said, district officials have complained about a lack of specifics in the reports. In the case of Wake County, he said, "it was a matter of record within their own minutes. We weren't guessing."

AdvancEd's assessment is not intended to stifle "open, robust policy debates," he said. But in Wake County, he said, board members were drafting resolutions on the fly and not allowing other board members or district staff enough time to respond to and advise them.

School Board Chairman Ron Margiotta said in a statement that he believes the report's characterizations of the members' motives was unfair, but that the recommended actions are already underway.

AdvancEd has issued other high-profile warnings based on similar reasons, including recently warning Atlanta that its high schools were at risk of losing accreditation due to a breakdown in school board leadership. Elgart said that such actions are within the purview of an accrediting agency because board dysfunction can lead to problems that affect schools and teachers.

Sanctioning schools based on the actions of school boards is a small part of AdvancEd's actions, he said. "It just tends to get the attention of everybody."

AdvancEd placed Wake County's high schools under an "Accredited Warned" status until November. That will be lifted if the district can demonstrate that it has taken several actions, including creating a strategic plan to guide board actions; revising the school assignment policy, and training board members on their roles and responsibilities.

Accreditation for the high schools will be in place through the 2011-12 school year. (The elementary and middle schools in the county are not affected because they are accredited by a different agency.) Losing accreditation could make it harder for Wake County seniors to get into college or to get scholarships, if those decisions are based on a requirement that a student graduate from an accredited school.

Superintendent Anthony J. Tata told the Raleigh News and Observer that the system is well on its way to meeting AdvancEd's requirements. The district is currently contemplating a choice-based school assignment model that will use student test scores as a method of avoiding a concentration of low-performing students in any one school.

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