Mecklenburg commissioners find no consensus on CMS magnet school plan

Mecklenburg County commissioners don’t seem to like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ new magnet school plan, but neither did they take a firm stand against it Tuesday.

The plan, which CMS presented to commissioners earlier this month, uses the socioeconomic status of students to award assignments in magnets and break up pockets of poverty. The CMS board will vote on it Nov. 9.

Commissioners’ Chair Trevor Fuller wanted his board, which funds about 30 percent of CMS’ operating budget, to convey its support, or lack of it, for the complex plan. He got a little of both in an hour-long discussion, but no vote either way.

Several commissioners noted that they haven’t heard the cost of the magnet plan, and several more questioned its benefit to students.

At-large commissioner Pat Cotham wondered whether the school district is merely “playing around with numbers” and if students who already perform well will be challenged to do better.

“I’m reluctant to be excited,” she said. “I’m just worried that we're moving kids around without changing things.”

Vice Chair Dumont Clarke said he wants to support the plan, although he needs to know more about costs. With CMS staring at highly segregated schools and high concentrations of poverty, he said, “I think it’s a time when you have to be creative, because you have to have some strategy for addressing this issue.”

District 2 commissioner Vilma Leake, a former teacher, said use of the word “poverty” breeds low expectations for students and excuses for school officials.

“We keep saying because they live in poverty, they’re poor, they can’t learn. They can learn,” she said. “Let’s talk about expectations for all children in this district and ask the system, when will they begin to stop using that word?”

District 1 commissioner Jim Puckett, a former CMS board member, repeated the argument he voiced Oct. 12: The plan is more about marketing to counter the growing number of students fleeing CMS for charter, private and parochial schools, he said, than about education. Puckett believes the plan will do nothing to help students from poor families.

District 3’s George Dunlap, another former school board member, said it’s CMS’ job, not commissioners’, to devise a plan.

Said Fuller: “We need to figure out how to make every school a good school, and we're not doing that. And we need to make every school a school that a parent wants to send their child to, and that's not the case today. So maybe that's what we need to figure out.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender