CMS board gives west Charlotte a $126 million bump. Will it save or sink school bonds?

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake and westside residents have been pushing for weeks for new facilities at Bruns Academy and West Charlotte High.
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake and westside residents have been pushing for weeks for new facilities at Bruns Academy and West Charlotte High.

Depending on your perspective, on Thursday night the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board dramatically improved the bond package it hopes to take to voters in November – or doomed it.

The board voted 6-3 to revise its $798 million project list by adding new buildings for West Charlotte High and Bruns Academy. That adds about $126 million to the tab and gratifies some who say Charlotte’s west side has been shortchanged too long, on facilities and academics.

“Thank you Jesus!” County Commissioner Vilma Leake exclaimed after the vote. She represents that district and has been pushing for the new schools.

Still to be seen is whether a majority of her colleagues – and ultimately of countywide voters – agree. County commissioners must approve the bond referendum, which lets voters weigh in on borrowing for school construction and renovation.

Let’s at least put some hope there, where hopelessness is right now.

CMS board Chair Mary McCray

“While there are needs in those schools, there are also demonstrated needs in districts across the county. Where is the fairness for those students and families whose school projects just got skipped over in order to add Bruns and West Charlotte to the bond package?” Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour asked.

Few dispute that CMS needs money to build new schools and upgrade old ones. Overcrowded and dilapidated buildings can drag down schools and neighborhoods, while attractive new ones can boost pride and property values.

And that’s the challenge: The board drew its initial list of 28 projects from a longer list that ranked the urgency of school needs. Bumping up and expanding the money for West Charlotte and Bruns means others that rated higher must wait longer – a matter of years, as each bond package takes several years to come to fruition.

CMS continues to shoot from the hip when it comes to planning and process.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett

That was the concern cited by Paul Bailey, Eric Davis and Rhonda Lennon, who opposed the motion to add the two projects even as they acknowledged the two westside schools are in dire need of upgrades.

“We are putting at risk the entire ask,” Davis said. “This plays into our critics who say we don’t have a thoughtful process.”

But Thelma Byers-Bailey, who represents west Charlotte and made the motion, and other supporters on the school board talked about doing the right thing for a part of town that is fighting to build academic success, economic opportunity and neighborhood pride.

Board Chair Mary McCray said CMS made the right decision when it built a whole new school for McClintock Middle on Charlotte’s east side, rather than just replace the oldest parts of campus. She said new, state-of-the-art facilities for West Charlotte and Bruns would jump-start the more challenging effort to boost performance.

“Let’s at least put some hope there, where hopelessness is right now,” McCray said.

The bond request is only part of a debate that’s raging over westside schools. Also Thursday, the board heard impassioned statements from people who want CMS to dismantle the eight merged elementary-middle schools created during the recession and those who want to preserve them. Superintendent Ann Clark plans to present her proposal on April 25.

The current preK-8s are an intellectual death trap.

Former CMS board chair Arthur Griffin

Speakers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus cited low test scores at the merged schools, all of which have high poverty levels and few white students, as a sign that they need to be dismantled and replaced with something better. Arthur Griffin, a former school board chair who serves on the BPC education committee, called the current schools “an intellectual death trap.”

Bruns Academy is one of the eight K-8 schools under review.

On Friday, BPC Chair Colette Forrest asked CMS for details of the revised bond plan, citing “much distrust in the African-American community” about bond spending. Forrest said in an interview that the new facilities could be a good thing, but “was it an afterthought to kind of appease the African-American community and throw us a bone?”

At a March meeting on school bonds, Leake told the school board her constituents would reject the whole bond package unless West Charlotte and Bruns got new schools.

We don’t want to be tricked. We don’t want to be bait-and-switched.

Black Political Caucus Chair Colette Forrest

But other commissioners noted that the westside District 2 already had the largest share of the $798 million package. Adding two more schools in that district, moving them past higher-rated projects in other districts and pushing the total to about $924 million could create a backlash, some said.

“Approving those two schools is an insult to voters in districts 1,3 4 and 6 that were leapfrogged over,” said Commissioner Bill James.

“CMS continues to shoot from the hip when it comes to planning and process and this is just the latest example of why I continue to have grave concerns with funding large scale bond packages that seemingly have no rationale,” said Commissioner Jim Puckett.

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

Projects passed over

These projects were rated more urgent than the ones added to the bond request Thursday.

Higher than West Charlotte:

▪ Expansion at Community House Middle.

▪ Renovation at Albemarle Road Middle.

Higher than Bruns:

▪ New middle school to relieve Kennedy and Southwest.

▪ Land purchase in District 2 to prepare for growth.

▪ Renovation at Huntersville Elementary.

▪ New high school to relieve Independence, Garinger and East Meck.

▪ Auditorum addition at Independence High.

▪ New high school to relieve Hough and Mallard Creek.

▪ Replacement school for Coulwood Middle.