While the city grows, CMS staff is shrinking

We're No. 19!

Charlotte must have greeted this week's news from the U.S. Census with joy. The city rose from the nation's 20th-largest city to 19th. (Allow me to mourn that it had to pass my hometown of Baltimore to do it. I guess killer crab cakes and a harbor view are no longer enough.)

Modern Charlotte has been on a mission, to take its place among America's top cities, with all the accompanying bells and whistles.

But Charlotte has also been proud that its schools have never been thought of as “just another urban system,” with all the accompanying woes.

So it's bittersweet that the growth story broke on the same day as news that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – in an effort to meet budget expectations – announced it will eliminate 331 jobs, including 66 elementary school teachers.

City grows – though not as fast as Cary, apparently – school system shrinks. Will that ruin our chances for No. 18?

It's been decades since Charlotte's brightest day in the national education spotlight, the 1970's “city that made desegregation work.” The system – with its magnet programs, Newsweek rankings and diverse student body – has continued to impress with its commitment.

Superintendent Peter Gorman has focused on what works, whether it's giving successful principals more freedom or transferring creative teachers to schools in crisis. But even good news brings challenges.

Rising test scores come with the caveat of achievement gaps between urban and suburban classrooms. Dropout rates persist, especially among minority students.

A second Performance Learning Center, a small high school for students with unconventional education needs, is a victim of recent cuts.

Solutions may come in the open-to-the-public forums to discuss trimming graduation requirements and shifting magnet schools. (Now there's a thought – when the going gets tough, make schools a little easier.)

Right now, though, a city with a book festival with headliners Khaled Hosseini, Scott Turow and Armistead Maupin will lose more than 100 people who work in the school libraries, where many young people first fall in love with literature.

The skyscrapers are going up, all right. We just have to be sure the foundation is strong.

A school system – at its best and worst – has always reached into every part of a community. It's what businesses tout when trying to attract families. It's the saving grace of young people mapping out a future. Lessons learned create alternatives to hopelessness and crime.

In a slowing economy, Charlotte is no longer the slam-dunk city of choice.

Football and basketball and NASCAR are important. So are the 14 school counselors, social workers and psychologists on the cuts list.

The reputation of Charlotte as a place that cares about the quality of its schools has meant as least as much as the number of places you can buy a $35 steak.

Without that continued commitment, Memphis (No. 18), has nothing to worry about.