Education

County to CMS: Never mind that magnet plan delay. We aired our views on TV

CMS Superintendent Ann Clark told Mecklenburg County commissioners the district’s magnet school plan isn’t designed to solve academic problems.
CMS Superintendent Ann Clark told Mecklenburg County commissioners the district’s magnet school plan isn’t designed to solve academic problems. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

After more than two hours of free-wheeling education talk, Mecklenburg County commissioners went home Tuesday without asking the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to delay a decision on magnet-school changes.

Nor did they offer a vote of confidence in the plan, which introduces a new magnet lottery based partly on socioeconomic status and goes to the school board for a vote Nov. 9. Instead, commissioners said they just needed to have a televised discussion so the public would understand their questions and concerns.

“I think it’s right for us to have the conversation,” said commissioners’ Chair Trevor Fuller, who spoke in favor of the school board’s effort to reduce concentrations of poverty in schools.

Commissioner Jim Puckett, who put the CMS magnet school discussion on Tuesday’s agenda, said he proposed a delay until a new superintendent is hired, but really just wanted to make sure the public heard the debate. He spent 18 minutes detailing his objections to the CMS magnet plan. He called it “an extraordinarily expensive program that’s being done to educate poor children” but said it will bring no benefit to struggling schools and students.

The school board is searching for a successor to Superintendent Ann Clark, whose contract ends next year.

“I hope the new superintendent doesn’t come in down the road and go, ‘You people are crazy,’ ” Puckett said.

Several of his colleagues seemed reassured by Clark’s remarks that while the new magnet priorities are designed to break up concentrations of disadvantaged students, “it’s not intended to be an academic plan.” CMS already has a number of programs in place to improve low-performing schools, including efforts to recruit and support top teachers, she said.

“What a reduction in the percentage of poverty does is change the conditions” to make it easier to help struggling students, she said.

The school board doesn’t need permission from county commissioners to make student assignment changes. But CMS is counting on commissioners to put school bonds on the 2017 ballot and provide a yet-unspecified amount of extra money next year to expand magnet programs and provide transportation to students seeking optional assignments.

Fuller said even though he supports the CMS effort, the district may face more questions when it comes back with a budget request in the spring. “We are not potted plants,” he said. “We have an obligation to spend the public money the best way we know how.”

Clark said CMS will do much of the expansion using available space in existing schools or reopening schools that were closed five years ago. Changes related to the new magnet plan make up only a small portion of the proposed $805 million bond package, she said.

Other commissioners made lengthy and wide-ranging observations about the challenges facing CMS, with many lamenting what they called school segregation. Commissioner George Dunlap urged colleagues not to stand in the way of CMS officials trying to remedy that situation.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Dunlap said, adding that “that denial comes out in the form of broken windows and riots in our community.”

Several commissioners said Puckett’s move to seek a delay unleashed a flood of emails supporting and opposing the CMS proposal. “Take these passionate concerns, take these emails and address them to the Board of Education,” said commissioner Matthew Ridenhour.

CMS leaders have been reviewing student assignment since 2015. Efforts to involve the public include a poll that drew more than 27,000 responses, a series of public engagement meetings and several meetings to discuss the evolving plan with commissioners.

But specifics of the magnet plan were released only three weeks ago, and the joint meetings between CMS and the county weren’t televised, Puckett said.

“It may be the 11th hour for CMS, but it’s hour one for us,” he said Tuesday afternoon.

County commissioners are up for election next week, but most, including Puckett, are running unopposed.

The CMS timeline calls for two more public meetings to explain the magnet changes Monday, with a vote on Nov. 9 for changes that would take effect in 2017-18.

After that, Clark has said her staff and the district’s consultants will move immediately into work on neighborhood schools, with changes taking effect in 2018.

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

Stay engaged

Monday: Simultaneous town hall meetings to explain the magnet changes will take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at East Mecklenburg High, 6800 Monroe Road, and West Mecklenburg High, 7400 Tuckaseegee Road. People can also watch live and submit questions online.

Nov. 9: The CMS board will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes, followed by a vote, at a meeting starting at 6 p.m. in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.

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