Keep holding your breath: No CMS board consensus on how to change boundaries

Students arrive at Druid Hills Academy, one of the combined elementary/middle schools CMS is reviewing for change as part of its assignment review.
Students arrive at Druid Hills Academy, one of the combined elementary/middle schools CMS is reviewing for change as part of its assignment review.

For the tens of thousands of people waiting to see how their neighborhood schools will change, Tuesday’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting brought no relief.

The board ended a discussion of priorities for boundary changes with no consensus on how much emphasis to put on diversity, schools close to home, crowding and continuity.

“I don’t think we have a good grasp of what we need to be doing,” board Chair Mary McCray said.

With Superintendent Ann Clark planning to bring boundary recommendations out in a month, she left Tuesday’s meeting without the guidance she had sought from the board. Unless she gets other direction, she plans to move ahead with a complex ranking system that will be used to decide whether changes are needed at 138 schools that have boundaries (magnet schools don’t).

Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart pressed Clark to say how many schools can expect to see change. Clark said it’s too early to give even an estimate.

Boundary decisions shape education opportunities and property values across Mecklenburg County. Clark plans to present preliminary plans on April 25, with public discussions and a vote in May. Any changes would take effect in 2018-19 or later.

For now, rumors and speculation are floating. Some Mecklenburg County commissioners recently told school board members the uncertainty is eroding public confidence.

Vice Chair Elyse Dashew and members Rhonda Lennon and Eric Davis said the district should use rankings that evenly balance all four criteria: socioeconomic diversity, distance from home, how full the school is and whether zones are split up as kids advance to middle or high school.

Lennon noted that surveys indicate that schools close to home are most important to a majority of families across the county, but said the most important thing is to move ahead.

“Let’s just get on with it,” Lennon said. “(Parents) need to know where their kids are going to school the year after next.”

McCray, Ellis-Stewart and Tom Tate questioned whether the approach presented Tuesday will do enough to break up high concentrations of poverty at dozens of schools. McCray said students in those schools are most in need of change.

“We can’t change their neighborhoods. We can’t change the situation they live in,” McCray said. “But we can give them educational opportunities and that’s what we should be doing.”

On Monday, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force released a report endorsing the school board’s efforts to break up racial and economic isolation in schools and urging the board “to be bold and courageous in developing the new assignment plan.”

Ellis-Stewart voiced skepticism about the current strategy presented Tuesday. “Are we showing a lack of that courage?” she asked.

Board member Paul Bailey said the most important thing is giving students alternatives to failing schools, and said any decisions will take years to play out. “This is not a fix-it-overnight issue,” he said.

Also Tuesday, Clark outlined three scenarios to make changes to eight combined elementary/middle schools that were hastily merged during the recession. Those plans range from changing only one of the eight schools to making all eight elementary schools and reopening two of the middle schools that were closed in 2010.

Clark and her staff have spent the past month meeting with families, faculty, volunteers and community members at the eight schools, located on Charlotte’s west side. Reactions have been mixed: Families in the gentrifying Bruns Academy zone say making it an elementary school would help attract diversity. Volunteers with St. Peter Catholic Church are vigorously protesting the prospect of making Druid Hills a middle school, saying that would destroy their partnership with the school.

All three scenarios would turn Bruns into an elementary school, while the three scenarios would bring three different fates – becoming an elementary school, becoming a middle school or remaining a merged school – for Druid Hills.

All three options come with significant construction and renovation costs, ranging from $24 million to $45 million. The two that would cost about $24 million could be paid for with money from 2013 school bonds. The most extensive and costly plan for change would play out in two stages, with an additional $20 million needed by the time the final changes take place in 2021-2022.

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