After wrangling over West Charlotte and Waddell, CMS board OKs $798M bond plan

Board members agree the West Charlotte High stadium, shown here at a 2014 memorial program, needs renovation, but it’s not on the 2017 bond list.
Board members agree the West Charlotte High stadium, shown here at a 2014 memorial program, needs renovation, but it’s not on the 2017 bond list.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted 7-1 Tuesday to approve a $798 million list of projects for a 2017 bond vote. But along the way they demonstrated the difficulty of setting those priorities.

The list has been revised slightly since it was first drawn up in 2015, when board members hoped county officials would put $804 million in bonds on the 2016 ballot.

After hearing Tuesday from people who want West Charlotte High athletic facilities added to the list and bigger schools built to house the Waddell Language Academy program, board members agonized over whether to revise the 28-project list Superintendent Ann Clark and her staff presented.

It’s a drama that plays out every time school bonds come up: The staff creates a system to rank construction and renovation needs, touting it as a way to take politics out of the process. Board members applaud it. But there’s never enough money to cover all the needs. And when you have impassioned parents and a political process, there’s always a temptation to tinker.

Rhonda Lennon, for instance, noted that the large and growing northern district she represents would get only $54 million of the $798 million in projects.

“I have great respect for the way this was developed,” she said. “I understand it. But I’m struggling.”

It’s extremely important for the bonds to be passed, regardless of the district you live in or how it affects you directly.

CMS board member Paul Bailey

Thelma Byers-Bailey, who represents the West Charlotte High area, made a motion to add $8 million in athletic upgrades to the proposed $11.3 million worth of classroom projects at the high school. Clark and board members agreed the stadium is, as Ericka Ellis-Stewart put it, “really decrepit.” But they said it wouldn’t be fair to jump that project ahead of others, including other high schools awaiting upgrades to athletic facilities.

“If we add West Charlotte, why West Charlotte?” Clark asked. “It’s not disputing the need. It’s on our list. But is it the neediest project?”

Byers-Bailey’s motion couldn’t get a second, so it didn’t come up for a vote.

Several members noted that a project in the south suburbs, which calls for a $30 million new building to replace Lansdowne Elementary, was bumped up the list because the Town of Matthews wouldn’t approve zoning for mobile classrooms to expand nearby Elizabeth Lane Elementary.

Supporters of Waddell Language Academy, a K-8 magnet housed in a former high school, worry that moving from the 71 classrooms they have now to new 63-classroom schools in the north and south would constrain the programs that make the school popular and successful. Clark said the space in the planned schools is enough to support the language magnet.

Lennon said she wants to spend $6 million more to expand the two new schools, one of which will be in her district. That brought a rebuke from board Chair Mary McCray.

“I’m going to vote no if we’re just going to cherry-pick,” McCray said, noting that there are neighborhood preK-8 schools located in former elementary schools that also need expansion and improvement. “If we’re not going to include them, I’m not going to support any of them.”

Ultimately most members agreed with Tom Tate, who said there are “legitimate concerns” about the project list but the most important thing is to get it to the county in time for a January retreat on bonds. County commissioners decide how much debt they’re willing to ask taxpayers to pay for, and must weigh CMS needs with those of other county-funded facilities.

“We’re at the 11th hour with the county. … Even though I don’t think this is perfect, it’s better to move forward than it is to keep debating,” Tate said.

Lennon cast the only “no” vote, and Eric Davis was absent.

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