Religious and Family Freedom and the Wake County School Board

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Hello!

My name is David Bailey. This blog is part of my wife's and my effort to get the word out about some bad decisions made recently by the Wake County Public School System School Board regarding the student assignment plan, how it's impacting families in the area, and things we can all do to make the school district better.

I'll start off by summarizing the issue we have found ourselves in. We're a family that has lived within Wake County boundaries for over ten years now. Our children have attended public schools since they were old enough to attend school. One of the reasons we moved to Wake County was because we were aware of the fact that Wake County has schools that score higher on standardized tests than most of the school systems in North Carolina.

Amber and Brittany are my two teenage daughters. Besides being sisters, they are close friends who were born only 18 months apart and share a lot of interests and friends. They love music, art, books, their faith, and learning.

Wake County Public School System (which I'll refer to as WCPSS), is a mammoth school district of over 13,000 teachers and staff, over 120 schools, and around 120,000 students. Due to tremendous growth and schools being built to respond to this growth, students have to get reassigned on a pretty regular basis.

I like to think I'm a reasonably educated guy (I'm a computer systems engineer and consultant), and that my wife is a reasonably educated woman (she's a professional paralegal). I understand that these changes are going to occur.

There are two new high schools that have been built in the past few years. WCPSS typically fills these schools by having only a freshman class in the first year, then the following year, they advance the freshman class to a sophomore class and have a new freshman class, and so on until in the fourth year, they have all four classes. In the case of Holly Springs High School, a school nearby us, they have started the school with two classes- freshman and sophomore.

My daughters are a rising sophomore and junior that attended Middle Creek High School last year together.

Here's the issue. This year, they are being split. Amber is staying as a junior at Middle Creek High School, because Holly Springs High School doesn't have a junior class, and Brittany has been reassigned to Holly Springs High School.

Now, it is my opinion that WCPSS should not be in the habit of splitting families with students that attend the same school level- high, middle, elementary. I know of several cases where they tried to keep housing developments together. They should give at least similar concern to splitting families.

Where this becomes a religious issue is the fact every morning before school, both of my daughters attend a religious studies class called seminary. In my faith (I'm LDS or Mormon) this is an important part of being in high school. Each morning all the youth who attend high school meet for an hour to learn of Christ by studying the scriptures and receiving religious instruction. In seminary, the teachers take attendance and after four years there is a graduation ceremony for seminary graduates.

One challenge to attending seminary in this area is that this class starts early enough to allow the students to attend and still make it to school on time. This is called early-morning seminary. In our case, seminary starts at 6:00AM so they can be done by 7:00AM. Now, I have two teenage daughters, which means they're getting up usually on or before 5:00AM to get ready for school. In some of the western states where LDS members are more numerous, students are allowed to attend seminary in a building near the school during the school day. That is not the case here.

In the past, we have car pooled with another two families to ensure that they can reach school. This year, church members in our area are being split with different families going to different high schools. If we lived any further North, we'd be at a different school, and Holly Springs High and Middle Creek High are in opposite directions from us, each about equally distant.

Now I travel often in my work. Many weeks I'm traveling during the week and back on weekends. My wife also works. Our plan this year is that we're getting a third vehicle so that Amber can take herself and her sister to seminary and also provide transportation to and from after school activities. This is obviously going to be impossible if they are attending different schools.

So if we accept the school reassignment, A) Brittany will no longer be able to attend seminary, or B) we must find a friend to go completely out of their way over 20 minutes round trip at around 5:30AM. I fear they would not remain our friends for long.

Now, we know that WCPSS has a "process" for appealing the student (re)assignment plan. We read online about when WCPSS is going to allow parents to file their appeals. On the day we’re allowed, we mail a letter to WCPSS making our request that Brittany be able to continue attending at Middle Creek High School.

The same day they receive our letter, WCPSS mails us back with a letter stating that our request has been considered and denied. They also inform us that we have one last chance to make an appeal, in person, before a portion of the school board. We duly filed our second appeal.

My wife, Rhonda, put together detailed information about the seminary program and our religious beliefs. She attended a hearing where she had a brief few minutes (I think it was five or so) to present her case to two school board members. She did so and was courteously received. Unfortunately, I was not able to be there myself. Rhonda was encouraged because she felt that even though it was brief that they listened and were certain that once they understood our circumstances, they would grant our appeal.

Three days later, we receive another letter from the school board stating that our appeal has been denied and that we have no other appeal. We were flabbergasted. Rhonda spent hours pouring over various policy and legal documents, made calls to school board members, the school Superintendent's office, and other staff members at WCPSS. Basically, the answer they all gave us was, there is no further appeal process, live with it. (Well, I added the live with it, but that was basically it.) The letter actually stated that “there was no further appeal process.”

Rhonda is a paralegal and simply cannot believe that the school board can get away with this kind of blatant disregard for our religious beliefs and the well-being of our children. The school board is supposed to represent us as parents and are required by law to take into account the well-being of the children.

Unfortunately, many members of school boards of large school systems become highly political and attempt to distance themselves from controversial decisions such as student reassignment. To do this they assign independent committees to draw up these plans and then the school board votes to implement them as a whole, stating that it was a difficult but necessary decision, and to individual parents that have problems they basically say “hey look, it’s not our fault that this plan has problems. We had to do something.”

In this case, my wife found both state and federal laws that require a school system to protect the religious beliefs of the students, I’ll let her talk about those herself, as well as laws that require the school board to consider the circumstances of each appeal and not to act capriciously or arbitrarily. This means they are supposed to take into account the well-being of the student in each and every appeal case, and not provide some sort of mass decision not based on the circumstances of the appeal itself.

She also finds that there is in fact a specific process laid out in North Carolina statutes that explain how a school board decision is not final and there is a process that allows for judicial review. However, it has a very tight time frame. You have to initiate this process a mere 30 days after receiving notice that your appeal was denied. At the time my wife found this, it was a Friday and our deadline was Tuesday.

Now we aren’t wealthy and we don’t keep an attorney on retainer. It would also have been very difficult to get any attorney on this case so quickly. Rhonda knows a few things about law being a paralegal. We spoke and decided to take action on our own. We rapidly worked together through the weekend putting together our request for judicial review and then I took Rhonda to the courthouse on Monday. She did a marvelous job and ended up with a package of 20 or so pages for the school board and for each school board member. Although she had to change a few forms when she filed the paperwork at the courthouse, it went out that day largely intact. Each packet gets mailed by certified mail to ensure delivery and get the date that it was received. This gets documented as part of the case.

And that is how we have filed our first law suit.

We have spoken many times about this as a family. None of us is deluded. We realize that this is a very challenging situation: two middle-class parents filing a suit against one of the largest school districts in the country who have many staff and attorneys at their call.

However, we take strength from a few things. Firstly, we feel this is right. We feel obligated to take advantage of the fact that we live in a free society and we are allowed to raise questions and make these kinds of issues known about so we can help make this system better for everyone. When people don’t stand up for their rights, they lose them.

Secondly, we are becoming aware that we are not the only ones who are concerned about the handling of this issue by the school board. While some of the school board members have been very kind and willing to speak with us, others have not and have shown disregard for us as parents and for our daughters as students. This kind of disinterest and apathy should not be tolerated in our representatives on the school board. By speaking publicly about this issue we can inform others about their rights and help them get accurate information about what their options are.

I have been told that this is only the second lawsuit filed against the school board over the issue of student reassignment in ten years. I find that amazing considering the lack of effect our appeals have had. I think the reason for this is the misinformation, such as stating you have no further appeal, and the bureaucratic hurdles, three appeals being filed in short succession or you lose your ability to appeal, and has left many parents feeling helpless and impotent. This must change. The school board and school system works for the citizens and parents who fund the school system. A public school system means it belongs to the public.

I’ll continue to put information here as it develops.

Feel free to express your concerns to the school board, the local media, and local political leaders. As a group we can change things for the better. As voters we can vote in school board members that understand the role of the school board better and replace those who have become too comfortable in their situation.

Thanks for your interest,

David Bailey

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