For two years, Jeremy Stephenson has been trying to convince Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials that his neighborhood in southeast Charlotte should be assigned to closer schools.
The Crown Colony request is one of the first to make its way through a new system designed to offer residents a clear, logical path to resolving questions about school boundaries.
So far, Stephenson says, CMS hasnt met that goal. But even if he and his neighbors fail to get the school board to take their side on Wednesday, Stephenson says CMS is moving in the right direction.
Theyre doing the best they can, said Stephenson, an employment attorney. They didnt get it right this time.
Few issues in public education evoke as much emotion as school boundaries. Massive changes often bring out hundreds of protesters.
The nine requests that will be decided Wednesday are on a much smaller scale. They involve pockets of homes, mostly in southeastern Mecklenburg County, where parents contend that small boundary changes could make a big difference for their neighborhoods and their kids. Mostly those requests involve boundaries that split subdivisions or keep children from attending the schools closest to their homes.
In the past, people making such requests were often told to wait for a districtwide review of student assignment. Those who continued to lobby board members occasionally got their requests approved, but the process was murky and results unpredictable.
The simmering frustration eroded confidence in CMS, Stephenson says. People told me, Jeremy, dont even bother.
Superintendent Heath Morrison, hired in 2012, said CMS needed to give residents a way to be heard and get answers. Crown Colony and eight other neighborhoods completed the new process this fall. Their requests were rated on a 36-point scale that covers such issues as distance between home and school, diversity and effective use of school buildings.
I think overall it achieves what we want to achieve, said student placement director Scott McCully, who is in charge of reviewing the requests.
McCully is recommending only one request for board approval. It would rezone five houses in the southern Ballanmoor subdivision, which were built after Elon Park Elementarys boundaries were drawn, so those children can attend Elon Park with the rest of the neighborhood.
Board members got reports, including the numeric ranking, for the other requests. They wont vote on those unless a member moves to put them on the agenda.
A quest for change
Stephenson says that when he and his wife, who didnt have children yet, moved to southeast Charlotte in 2005 their Realtor told them not to worry about school boundaries because CMS changes them so often.
Two years ago, with a preschool daughter, Stephenson began paying attention to schools and wondering why their neighborhood didnt go to the closest schools. He found that many neighbors had the same question.
We can hear the band at Providence, and I can tell you which jersey number made a touchdown, he said, yet Crown Colony is zoned to go to East Mecklenburg High.
The neighborhood has 94 homes with 15 school-age kids, he said. They had no luck getting the board to vote on their request for change in 2012, so Stephenson celebrated the debut of a process that lets the board decide on community requests each fall. The neighbors presented their case to CMS officials.
In November, Stephenson learned that McCully was not recommending approval of the Crown Colony request. Stephenson asked for the documents that showed how it had been scored.
Stephenson learned that the request had gotten maximum points on school-to-home distance. The rating was lower on effective use of schools because they were seeking to add students to the crowded Elizabeth Lane Elementary. And the request got zero points for diversity. All told, the Crown Colony request earned 18 out of a possible 36 points.
The rating raised more questions. Stephenson wanted to know what the cutoff was for approval. McCully told him there wasnt one.
The diversity rating was also perplexing. The rating form states that it is based on creating a relative balance of economically disadvantaged students. The Crown Colony request, like most of the others, seeks to move students into lower-poverty schools.
Poverty levels are based on eligibility for federal lunch subsidies. But individual students eligibility is considered confidential, McCully said, while CMS planners have access to racial information on each student. So he looked at the race of the students who would be moved and the demographics of the schools they would leave and move to.
Stephenson wanted to check that data but couldnt. CMS has not released school enrollment totals, poverty levels or racial composition, citing problems with the states PowerSchool data system.
(We need) the actual data, Stephenson emailed McCully.
McCully told the Observer there are guidelines for using the point totals 18 points rates low for recommendation, while it would have taken 28 to be a high priority but no firm cutoff for approval or rejection. The scores are just one tool, he said: Its using our best judgment.
On Nov. 22, The Observer asked for the ratings and reports to the board on all nine requests. CMS has not provided any of that information.
Erika Strubbe, a Southwest Middle School parent, submitted the most extensive request, which calls for carving off parts of the schools zone to relieve crowding.
Unlike the other requests, Strubbe and her supporters are not asking that their own assignments be changed. Instead, the plan would send other students to nearby Kennedy and Sedgefield middle schools, which have more room. Strubbe said the plan originated with about a dozen parents at her home; a Facebook page advocating the change has more than 200 members.
McCully told the board he appreciated the work and creativity the families demonstrated. But he said the plan should be deferred until next year so additional changes in that area can be considered. He said the residents who would potentially be reassigned also need a chance to weigh in.
Strubbe disagrees. Her group met the requirements of the new process, she says, and she wants a decision.
Stephenson said Friday he expects the meeting to bring another setback for Crown Colony, but hell try again in 2014. Im still hopeful, he said. Dr. Morrison and Scott McCully genuinely seem concerned with getting it right. This is very frustrating, but the fact that were having this conversation is a positive.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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