From spreading magnets and K-8 schools around the county to creating high school career centers, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ long-term construction plan reflects a new approach to planning.
The brick-and-mortar plans are tied to a vision of education that involves tailoring schools to neighborhood needs. Some of the proposals, such as an expansion of combined elementary-middle schools, meld educational theory and money-saving tactics, Superintendent Heath Morrison says.
“I don’t want our capital plan to ever be about just buildings,” Morrison said.
In the past, CMS bond campaigns have focused on playing catch-up – building classrooms for booming areas where schools were scarce and getting decades-old buildings up to modern standards. Those challenges linger, but the current plan focuses on designing each project for an academic purpose.
“It was refreshing to me to see it going a different way,” said Tom Tate, the CMS board’s longest-serving member. But he said the new plan creates a lot of issues for people to grasp in a short time. The plan was presented two weeks ago, with a public hearing scheduled Tuesday and a vote set for April 23.
“I was pleased as a whole,” Tate said, “but there are a lot of questions it raises.”
Morrison’s educational vision will be fleshed out at Tuesday’s meeting when he presents a proposed 2013-14 operating budget. That money is separate from construction and renovation.
But the capital plan starts filling in the picture Morrison has been sketching since he was hired a year ago.
Beefing up CMS’ options has been one of Morrison’s themes from the start, and the plan calls for creating magnets around the county. Most would expand access to popular programs, such as science and technology, arts and foreign languages.
For instance, the plan calls for spending about $27 million to build a new K-8 magnet featuring the STEAM theme – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – in Mecklenburg’s southern tip. Another $40 million would go to build a similar high school magnet on the site of the former Smith Language Academy on Tyvola Road in south Charlotte.
Top priorities in the new plan include a K-8 STEAM magnet in southeast Charlotte and a Spanish-English magnet in east Charlotte.
The plan also calls for increasing the number of mini-high schools located on Central Piedmont Community College campuses. Cato Middle College High, a CMS school in northeast Charlotte, already offers dual CPCC and high school enrollment to about 200 juniors and seniors. Morrison plans to use mobile classrooms to create a similar school at the Levine campus in Matthews, with classes starting next year. And the plan includes $5.5 million to create a high school building on another unspecified campus.
Starting this spring, up to 90 students from Hopewell, Hough and Mallard Creek high schools will have a chance to transfer to North Mecklenburg High for classes that prepare them for careers in the automotive, carpentry or culinary fields.
The plan calls for spending $8 million to upgrade North Meck, West Meck, Garinger and Independence to create technical institutes around the county. The career specialties, which will include cosmetology at some schools, will provide additional options for students in nearby high schools.
Merged elementary/middle schools surged onto the CMS scene in 2011, when former leaders closed three struggling high-poverty middle schools and reassigned the students to former elementary schools. At the time, leaders said the settings provide more personal attention for middle school students and reduce the academic slump that often occurs with the sixth-grade transition.
Some parents were skeptical, noting that smaller settings reduce the number of extra courses and after-school activities available to the older students. If K-8 schools are so beneficial, some asked, why aren’t they being created in the suburbs?
It’s too early to measure the academic effect of the K-8 schools that are in their second academic year, but the plan calls for creating several more K-8 schools, from Davidson in the north to Ballantyne in the south.
The 10-year plan includes eight new K-8 schools, with several others created by expanding and renovating existing schools.
Morrison said he believes K-8 schools can yield academic benefits, especially “when you have a chance to do them well.” But he said it’s also a financial strategy at a time when money is tight and open land is disappearing. A combined school costs far less than two full-size schools, he said.
The CMS long-range plan was unveiled amid talk of increased county control over school construction. Morrison said his approach to meshing education and construction isn’t a defensive move. He said he’s already consulting with county leaders as he plans, and will continue to do so if the N.C. House bill allowing the county to take control of construction passes.
Even without that bill, county commissioners will decide whether to put CMS bonds on the November ballot, and how much debt they’re willing to take on for school construction.
Morrison said he’s been focused on the first 21 projects on the list, with a price tag of about $386 million. That’s well under the $517 million voters approved in CMS bonds in 2007, but some commissioners have said CMS may have to cut further.
That means most of the projects remain years from completion, allowing time to hash out programs and details even after Tuesday’s hearing and this month’s board vote.
“I don’t think the ink is dry on anything yet,” said board member Rhonda Lennon, who plans to discuss the plan with constituents in her north suburban district later this week.
Lennon said she likes Morrison’s approach, but “I’m very anxious to see what the community thinks.”
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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