09/21/09 — NCSU lab will check numbers in Duplin

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NCSU lab will check numbers in Duplin

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on September 21, 2009 1:46 PM

The Duplin County Board of Education has voted to hire the Operations Research/Education Laboratory at North Carolina State University to examine student demographics and transportation routes in an effort to guide future decisions about school facilities.

Jeff Tsai, program director of the OR/Ed. Lab, told the board members the lab could provide a stable platform and objective basis for decision making, and help determine school placement by offering unbiased mathematical data.

The name of the game for school placement is optimization, Tsai said.

"What we're trying to do is produce a location where student distance to school is minimal. ... We use the figures in terms of attendance boundary to define optimal placement and size of school," he explained.

Rather than blindly pinpoint an exact location for a new school on a map, the lab could draw a general circle boundary as a general idea of the best place to put the school. The idea is to give the board members multiple options and the best information to assist in decision-making. However, the board must determine how to balance distance with demographics.

Minimizing transportation costs can sometimes be opposite to balancing demographics, Tsai warned. The lab can provide data on both aspects of school planning, but it will still be up to the school board what to do with the information.

Elementary schools in Duplin County, particularly Beaulaville and Kenansville Elementary, are predicted to increase in population over the next 10 years, while middle and high school populations are expected to remain fairly stable, Tsai said. However, based on Tsai's current figures, schools in the eastern part of the county are already facing overcrowding problems.

The lab arrived at the numbers by examining the past four years of growth, using the student population numbers based on the second month of school attendance. The lab already has facts and figures data about the Duplin school system due to its prior work studying the growth in areas around Camp Lejeune. Given the foundation of information already in place, the project could return data to the board as soon as January, Tsai said.

But numbers aren't everything in the process, he warned.

"If it was, our job would be easy," Tsai said.

The school board must create a committee of 10-15 members, drawn from current and retired principals, community leaders, at least one Board of Education member and other people knowledgeable about the issue to act as a type of public relations team. It will be the committee's job to relay information between the public and the board members and help to educate the community about the process and decision-making.

The lab routinely helps school systems examine local issues within the community, and it works even in controversial situations because the information put forth is "driven by policy and data and a certain amount of community input," Tsai said.

His team supports open meetings, sharing maps and holding discussions so the community can share their thoughts and affect the outcome, he said.

However, there must still be some form of cooperation for the school system to benefit from the process.

"Does this mean Duplin County will have a very smooth process? No, it does not. ... For people to overlook the history is a big hurdle," he said. "Don't expect this one project, whether you hire me or hire somebody else, to solve everything."

Board member Reginald Kenan dissented from the majority and voted no on the issue, and asked how the lab would satisfy the public.

"Transparency. The whole process is based on data," Tsai responded. "The committee makes it a public process. Someone can articulate why their idea won't work because we've tried this, and we've tried this."

However, Kenan argued, the study is similar to one the board paid for only a few years ago.

"I would hate to see us pay for something we've paid for before," he said.

But others thought it would be a different approach, and still worth pursuing.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, there was no mathematical component to it that I recall," Jennings Outlaw said.

Tsai appeared before the board in 2004 to discuss the possibility of providing services to the county school system, but the board at that time voted unanimously to find a more "scholastic oriented consultant" to provide information on curriculum planning.

The county will pay the lab $17,000 for the work, which is scheduled to begin in October.