New task force studies pupil assignments

Few area school districts have been exempt from the debate lately:

How much say should parents have when school attendance areas are adjusted and students are reassigned to different schools?

On one side are parents, who are accustomed to making important decisions for their children and believe they know what's best for them.

On the other side are school district administrators and board members, who must balance schools' enrollments, use classroom space efficiently and do what they believe is best for the entire system.

The Cabarrus County Schools system is in the middle of that debate right now. It is working on a redrawing school attendance boundaries countywide.

The system plans to have public hearings, which are not required by law, on what it proposes. But some parents, frustrated by recent redistricting proposals, would like more and earlier chances to discuss the way lines are to be drawn.

A new task force led by Superintendent Barry Shepherd is re-examining existing attendance areas. It includes no parents, and its meetings are closed to the public. Shepherd said its members have enough expertise to do their job well.

Initially, the task force included three school board members. But they left the task force after the Observer objected, arguing that under state law, its meetings must be open to the public because elected officials were participating.

Deborah Azzariti is among those who believe parents should have a place on any such committee, or at least be given updates on its work.

Azzariti and several others from her Bradford Park neighborhood opposed a plan in 2009 to send their children from Harrisburg Elementary School to the newly built Patriot Elementary.

"We had (school board members) who had never driven those roads," Azzariti said. "They didn't understand how the buses would cross each other."

The board approved the plan.

Gayle Williams lives in the Laurel Park neighborhood off George W. Liles Parkway. She spoke at a May public hearing against a plan that would have moved her daughter from Jay M. Robinson High School to Northwest Cabarrus High.

Williams said the proposal came too late in the year - her daughter had already made Robinson's 2010-11 cheerleading team - and would have divided the community.

"They tend to ignore that these people worship together; they attend sporting events together," Williams said.

Shepherd said the task force's purpose is to examine guidelines and reassignment options. That purpose will be well served by its members, who have plenty of experience with reassignment, he said.

The task force now is made up of six administrators, including Jim Amendum and Robert Kluttz. Both played major roles in drawing current attendance boundaries.

"The parents have a working voice in this process," Shepherd said. The administration brings forth a proposed plan, a public hearing allows people to comment on it, and then the school board votes. "This has been a process that has worked for us for years. I think that it is a fair process."

The board doesn't always approve administration proposals, and Shepherd said that proves the process works. The school board postponed the most recent plan, affecting 11 neighborhoods, after parents asked the board to study feeder schools' attendance lines first.

In 2008 the school board voted down a reassignment plan that would have shifted students from Robinson to the new Cox Mill High School.

"They listen to the public," Shepherd said.

But by the time a public hearing takes place, Azzariti said, school board members may have made up their minds.

"I thought public hearings were useless," she said of the hearings on the Patriot Elementary plan. "We came up with very educated proposals. They were flat-out refused."

Neighboring school districts have also felt the pull between parents and administrators.

"You have to have citizen involvement," said Timothy Morgan, a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. "Every district has different levels of how much involvement they want."

That school system has tried everything from committees that include percentages of parents to community forums, which offer interactive discussions between the public and the school system.

Public hearings don't allow such interactive discussions.

The Rowan-Salisbury Schools system has tried various methods, from hiring outside experts to including parents on a task force.

"It doesn't make any difference who comes up with the plan," said Rowan-Salisbury board chairman Jim Emerson. "It's going to be a hard pill to swallow."