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CMS debates magnet shuffle

Hundreds of students could be moved. Little consensus at daylong board meeting. Gorman's quest: ‘Simplify.'

By Ann Doss Helms
ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Hundreds of Charlotte-Mecklenburg students could be forced to change schools next year under new magnet proposals unveiled at an all-day school board meeting Thursday.

But even as the scheduled seven hours stretched toward eight, consensus eluded the board. One challenge: Some of the district's most popular magnets, such as the Elizabeth and Myers Park traditional schools and the “open” programs at Piedmont and Randolph middle, no longer offer clearly defined academic alternatives to regular schools.

“They're refugee magnets,” quipped board member Trent Merchant, referring to families fleeing neighborhood schools they consider undesirable.

In theory, most board members say a distinctive academic program is important. In reality, they acknowledge they're striking a fragile balance, trying to keep families from fleeing public education while streamlining a complex choice system that drives up the cost of busing.

“One of the words that was said repeatedly was ‘simplify,'” Superintendent Peter Gorman said, summarizing his quest to figure out what the board wanted after it shot down his first plan in June.

He asked the board to look at more tough choices this time, including whether the popular traditional schools should be converted to neighborhood schools. Board members backed away from that.

But they showed interest in proposals that may shock some of the hundreds of parents who turned out for magnet forums this summer. Among them: moving the highly successful Villa Heights magnet for gifted kids, turning Winding Springs Elementary from a magnet to a neighborhood school, and removing magnet programs from West Meck High, Cochrane Middle and First Ward Elementary.

The board took no votes Thursday, and Gorman said he and his staff will need more time to figure out which proposals are worth bringing back later this month.

He and some board members called the marathon meeting helpful, but acknowledged that controversy will continue as the board inches toward voting on changes this fall.

Board members argued vigorously over whether to end the “open” magnets, which offer a teaching style that debuted in the 1970s. Today they have fallen out of fashion and clash with 21st-century regulations. Ending the programs would displace about 1,350 students at four schools.

Vilma Leake complained that proposed changes hurt the westside that she represents.

Ken Gjertsen got little action on his calls for moving more magnets into the southern suburbs he represents.

George Dunlap suggested adding magnets, such as year-round schools and an uptown business magnet.

And Merchant urged his colleagues to make tough choices: “We can't punt… We've punted for four months.”

About 20,000 of the district's estimated 135,000 students got into magnets this year; almost 4,000 more applied but couldn't get seats.

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