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CMS board weighs school freedom, need for equity

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board grappled Friday with what it means to loosen the reins on successful schools and how to balance that freedom with the demand for equal opportunity.

The all-day planning retreat at the district’s Leadership Academy focused on the board’s theory of action, which calls for giving schools freedom to innovate while providing control and support for those that don’t meet goals. This year’s talk played out against a background of increased school choice and competition, with the prospect of state-mandated letter grades for schools looming next year.

“Schools that fail usually fail because they can’t define success,” Superintendent Heath Morrison told the board. “We have to define success in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and have measures that hold us accountable.”

The board started its focus on freedom and flexibility under former Superintendent Peter Gorman. But Morrison said when he was hired in 2012, principals told him they weren’t sure what that meant.

“If we can’t define what flexibilities you get, then we don’t really have it,” Morrison said.

Board Chair Mary McCray noted that there are limits to how much autonomy CMS can give schools.

“We’re still at the mercy of the federal and state mandates,” she said. “Will we ever get to be fully empowered?”

The board didn’t make any decisions Friday, but members talked about letting principals make staffing tradeoffs and decide what courses to offer. Morrison warned the group, which included two members elected in November, that such decisions can bring public pressure when families discover their neighborhood school doesn’t offer something that other schools do.

“Once we get consequences and rewards, we have to let it play out,” Morrison said. One option, he said, is to create regional clusters of schools that offer different academic specialties, allowing students to switch schools to get the programs they want.

The state legislature has mandated that A-F letter grades be issued to all public schools based on results of this spring’s state exams. The percent of students earning grade-level scores will account for most of the grade, although students’ year-to-year growth will also be figured in.

Thelma Byers-Bailey, one of the new members, talked about the tendency for families to flee schools perceived as undesirable. She and other members worried that the grades will make it difficult to attract strong faculty and build public support for schools that are trying to improve.

Morrison said he’s working on an independent CMS rating system that will be more nuanced than the state’s. He said he’ll look at using stars or something other than letter grades to avoid confusion.

CMS spent about $6,100 on fees for a moderator and food.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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