Those kids have to go to school somewhere. Since 2006, Wake County Schools have been adding 6,000 new students a year, pushing the system toward a breaking point. "We're having a hard time keeping up," says Joe Desormeaux, the system's assistant superintendent for facilities. The rapid growth has led to the use of modular classrooms on almost every campus and the use of an innovative year-round scheduling system that platoons sets of students to take maximum advantage of classroom space. It's still not enough. The large majority of the system's 170 schools are maxed out, even with the use of 11,000 temporary classrooms.
A bond issue on the ballot in October would allow the system to build about 30 more schools. But because this is Raleigh, and because North Carolina is a state now gripped in an epic scorched-earth battle between conservatives and liberals, its approval won't come easily. Just about everything in the region, down to local level, has become deeply politicized.
Witness the furor that developed in 2010, when tea party-backed conservatives engineered a takeover of the Wake County School Board and abolished a long-standing integration policy that had sent suburban kids into hardscrabble urban neighborhoods and inner-city kids to suburban schools in favor of an approach that emphasized neighborhood schools. Critics such as the NAACP argued the system was reverting to segregation. Liberals counterattacked and retook the board in 2011.
At the same time, the state's GOP-dominated General Assembly has injected itself squarely into education policy by expanding the use of vouchers, which allow low-income students to attend private schools, and charter schools, which will compete directly with traditional public schools. It has also frozen pay for K-12 teachers and eliminated a salary increase for teachers who hold advanced degrees.
These recent fights have led some on the Wake County school board to fret openly that the system will lose good teachers to private schools or other states — and that new families will stop relocating to the region in response. That would solve the county's overcrowding problem, but not in the way board members want.
Even John Tedesco, who was elected as part of the conservative bloc, is concerned about the Legislature's actions. "In all honesty, this is about to crash in a way that we have no clue," Tedesco said at a school board meeting in August. "We keep talking about want[ing] the best and the brightest teaching our children, but we don't provide the resources for them. Again, I'm a strong fiscal conservative. I'm a strong free-market guy. But one of the cruxes of any free-market system is competitive wages."
The Wake County Republican Party recently came out against the bond issue, much to the dismay of local officials. Desormeaux says that some critics doubt the school is using every available foot of space it can for students, and they wonder if art, music, and special-education rooms, which have fewer desks, can be converted into regular classroom space.