Final stretch: Does CMS magnet plan need more ‘wow’?

A new magnet school at the Eastland Mall site, scheduled to open in 2018, won’t be part of the CMS board’s Nov. 9 vote unless the district expands it to include two years of projects.
A new magnet school at the Eastland Mall site, scheduled to open in 2018, won’t be part of the CMS board’s Nov. 9 vote unless the district expands it to include two years of projects.

Two weeks before a long-awaited vote on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ new magnet plan, school board members are still pondering changes.

For instance, two members asked Tuesday if the vote should include school changes planned for 2018-19, locking in promises to add more magnet seats. Superintendent Ann Clark said she only plans to ask them to vote on Nov. 9 for magnet expansions at nine schools, all of which would take effect in 2017-18.

Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said she’d prefer to see the board vote on two years of projects, which would boost the number of seats added from about 3,600 to more than 6,200.

“All of this (plan) is predicated on our ability to add seats,” she said.

Board Chair Mary McCray chimed in: “As a parent, if I’m going to support you in a bond, you’ve got to wow me. Is this going to wow? We’ve got to look at this as an opportunity to say to the community: We’re all in.”

The discussion at Tuesday’s board meeting highlights the number of moving pieces that must come together for a new diversity-driven magnet plan to work.

CMS is counting on Mecklenburg County commissioners to put school bonds on the 2017 ballot and to provide an unspecified amount of additional operating money for the proposed magnet changes.

But at a special meeting Tuesday, commissioners’ Chair Trevor Fuller couldn’t even get commissioners to vote on support for the CMS plan. Instead, he got an hour’s worth of questions and concerns, including what the price tag will be.

We need to figure out how to make every school a good school, and we’re not doing that.

Mecklenburg County commissioners Chair Trevor Fuller

Clark told the school board she’ll provide information next week on the cost for the proposed school changes. But the increased cost for busing won’t be clear until January, when the lottery gives CMS a sense of who’s choosing which schools and how much additional transportation will be needed.

Board member Elyse Dashew voiced concern not just about the cost, but about the district’s ability to hire enough drivers. This year expanded magnet busing contributed to a driver shortage, which in turn has led to late buses. Dashew said CMS pays its drivers less than the city’s CATS transportation system, making it tough to compete.

Assuming commissioners agree to put a bond package for CMS on the 2017 ballot, district leaders will have to sell it to voters. A bond package would detail the projects to be funded, most of which would take years to complete.

If I’m going to support you in a bond, you’ve got to wow me. Is this going to wow?

CMS board Chair Mary McCray

Ellis-Stewart and McCray said voting on two years of magnet expansions would send a stronger signal to voters who might worry that their parts of town are being left out. For instance, several speakers at Tuesday’s public hearing complained that east Charlotte gets nothing in the first round of magnet expansion.

A new K-8 school on the old Eastland Mall site, funded by 2013 bonds, is scheduled to open in 2018. The plan calls for it to add 500 English-Spanish magnet seats, in addition to neighborhood students.

Clark said the plans for 2018-19 magnet changes are not fully fleshed out. Sedgefield Elementary and Northeast, Quail Hollow and Sedgefield middle schools are all scheduled to add magnet programs but the themes haven’t been selected. The same is true for a full magnet middle school scheduled to open in the old Wilson Middle School in 2018.

Clark said her staff has been talking with school leaders at Rama Road Elementary, which was listed in an Oct. 13 report to county commissioners as getting a 250-seat magnet program in 2018. But she said Tuesday it remains undecided whether the school will add a magnet to draw students from outside the attendance zone or an academic theme to make it more attractive to those who live in the zone.

Unmentioned Tuesday was another moving piece: A new superintendent will carry out the plans after 2017. Clark’s contract ends in June and the board is searching for a successor.

And the anticipated 2017 bond campaign will coincide with a school board election season, with six of the nine seats up for grabs. All of this, including the superintendent transition, will take place as the current board tackles what is likely to be the most controversial part of its ongoing student assignment review: Looking at neighborhood schools.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

Stay engaged

Tuesday: Superintendent Ann Clark holds a “coffee and conversation” session from 7:30 to 9 a.m. at Sharon Elementary, 4330 Foxcroft Road.

Nov. 7: Town hall meetings on the magnet plan from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at East Mecklenburg High, 6800 Monroe Road, and West Mecklenburg High, 7400 Tuckaseegee Road. Participate online by clicking the “town hall meetings” button at the top of the CMS website,

Clark will also hold a “coffee and conversation” session from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at Grand Oak Elementary, 15410 Stuptown Road, Huntersville.

Nov. 9: Public hearing and vote on the magnet plan, 6 p.m. at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.