The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s hard-won unity over student assignment in 2016 has shattered quickly as the district embarks on the quest to redraw school boundaries.
Superintendent Ann Clark and her staff are moving vigorously on a plan that calls for public meetings beginning Jan. 26 and a boundary vote by the end of May.
Meanwhile, board Chair Mary McCray says she hopes to throw the brakes when the full board next convenes on Jan. 24.
As member Ericka Ellis-Stewart put it Thursday, the staff is “charging down a road and it sounds like we may not be ready for it.”
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The rift flared Tuesday night, not long after a 7-0 vote to hire a new superintendent, during what looked like a routine update on the student assignment timeline. The review, which started in 2015, brought a unanimous vote in November 2016 to revise the magnet program in hopes of increasing choice and school diversity.
The next step involves looking at how boundaries for neighborhood schools might be shifted to break up economic isolation and make students more successful. Clark and her staff have already started talking with principals and school leadership teams, made up of faculty and parents, about setting criteria that will shape the boundary decisions.
But McCray, Ruby Jones and Thelma Byers-Bailey called for a delay, noting that the plan demands intensive work during the next five months. At the same time, parents and staff will be seeing how the magnet changes play out for 2017-18, the district will be gearing up a bond campaign, six of the board’s nine seats will be up for election and Clark will be handing off the superintendency to Clayton Wilcox, who starts July 1.
“It’s dizzying to the parents, to the constituents,” Jones said. “Change, period, is hard, and when you get an avalanche of it, it’s overwhelming.”
But Clark and board members Paul Bailey and Eric Davis said pulling back now will undermine what officials have been telling the public for months.
Bailey said prolonged uncertainty about boundaries will doom a 2017 bond vote. He said bonds are desperately needed to finance new schools and renovations across the county, and compared the bonds to the foundation of the whole student assignment plan.
“If we foul this up, the whole building’s just going to fall down,” Bailey said.
Davis said the long-established plan has been for Clark, a 33-year CMS veteran, to oversee the decision-making on this phase of the plan, while the new superintendent steps in to make it work. If the board delays, “we’re going to have years of experience walking out the door.”
The bottom line: Whether the board delays or moves ahead, it is almost certain to arouse anxiety at a time when CMS desperately needs people to feel good about the district. In every district in America, redrawing school boundaries is an emotionally fraught task, even when dealing with relatively small changes such as opening a new school or relieving crowding at a single school.
And CMS, with a historic role as one of the nation’s pioneers in desegregation and what many call resegregation, has vowed to tackle the challenge of high-poverty schools while trying to preserve public confidence and strong schools.
Already the politics of an often-divided county are flaring. Bailey represents the southern suburbs, where school poverty levels tend to be low, performance high and the three southern towns feel a strong sense of community ownership. He reminded the board Tuesday of the large, suspicious crowds that turned out early in 2016, when they feared CMS planned to break up their neighborhood schools.
If the board seems to be stalling, Bailey predicted, that distrust will be rekindled – and focused on the bond vote.
Meanwhile, a group of west Charlotte residents that included Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake spoke early in Tuesday’s school board meeting to call for a new building for Bruns Academy and a review of the preK-8 arrangement that was launched hastily at Bruns and other schools during the recession. Bruns is not on the current list of 2017 bond projects.
County commissioners, who have been skeptical of the CMS assignment review, must approve school construction bonds and a big part of the operating budget. McCray said the westside concerns are part of what is driving her call for a slowdown.
On Jan. 24, the board is scheduled for a marathon meeting day. From 3 to 5 p.m. they’ll hold an annual planning retreat at the Mahlon Adams Pavilion in Freedom Park, 2435 Cumberland Ave. They’ll go into closed session and a dinner break for an hour, then convene for a work session on student assignment at the same location at 6 p.m.
Until then, Clark and Scott McCully, the planner who is overseeing the boundary phase of the review, say they’ll keep moving on the existing schedule. That plan calls for nine community engagement meetings, starting Jan. 26 at Ardrey Kell High and ending Feb. 13 at West Charlotte High. It also calls for a new web platform, CMSlistens.org, that will be used to share information and collect feedback.
Clark told the board Tuesday they won’t need to make every boundary decision this year, but they must at least agree on the criteria for such decisions.
“I think we built momentum,” she said. “I think there’s an issue of integrity in terms of what we said we would do.”