Hundreds pack CMS assignment hearing as leaders say they’re still working on details

Hundreds turned out Tuesday to celebrate and skewer Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ plan to shift boundaries, magnet programs and feeder patterns in 2018.

A series of speakers were united in their passion for public schools, but had different views of the proposal Superintendent Ann Clark unveiled two weeks earlier.

“This feels like a numbers game, and our children are more than numbers,” said Cotswold parent Lecil Sullivan, who got hearty applause when she urged the board to wait for better information before voting.

Sullivan was speaking about one of the most controversial parts of the plan, which would merge the zones for Dilworth and Sedgefield elementary schools and for Cotswold and Billingsville elementary schools, with students attending one school in grades K-2 and another for 3-5. That proposal drew critics and passionate defenders.

“The merger of these two schools is beyond brilliant to me,” said Cotswold parent Mendy Godman.

For the last two weeks, parents and neighborhood groups have peppered board members and CMS staff with suggestions and alternative plans. Those who hoped to hear Tuesday whether their ideas will be considered had to keep waiting: Clark gave only a quick verbal wrap-up Tuesday. She said specifics on any new options will be aired at a May 16 work session, with the vote on May 24.

She said the total cost of her plan is $5.8 million, and said she will post more about those costs Wednesday on the CMS website. She said 7,114 students and 45 schools would be affected by boundary changes.

The board spent three hours Tuesday hearing from almost 90 speakers. When the meeting began, an overflow crowd of about 200 watched the televised meeting from the Government Center lobby.

While most spoke to specific parts of the plan, others voiced support or criticism of the process that began in 2015.

Mtu Pugh, a CMS parent and board chair of Communities in Schools, said no assignment plan can change the large number of Mecklenburg students who come from poverty, but this proposal helps address it.

“This is not the answer, but this is part of the answer,” he said.

Some said they wanted the plan to do more to break up concentrations of poverty, while others complained that neither board members nor parents have had enough time to understand the complex plan and consider the best options. Some parents have urged the board to delay voting until November, with almost 1,400 people signing an electronic “delay the vote” petition.

“You just launched it to us 14 days ago,” said Kevin Bilderback, a Dilworth Elementary parent.

Some of the hot-button topics at the hearing were:

Paired neighborhood schools

Clark’s proposal for the Dilworth/Sedgefield and Cotswold/Billingsville pairings would improve building use and diversity by pairing a crowded, low-poverty school with an underfilled high-poverty one.

Some speakers, including several from the Sedgefield neighborhood, cheered the plan. Sedgefield parent Robin Lipe said the pairing would “create the ideal public school experience in neighborhood schools that are diverse.”

Kelly Hoce, with the Cotswold Cares group, said the plan initially sparked fear and skepticism in the area, but families have been talking about ways to make that work.

But several families from the Myers Park neighborhood, wearing “Myers Park Neighbor / CMS Parent” buttons, said the plan won’t work as presented. They suggested turning Myers Park Traditional, a magnet elementary school, into a neighborhood school for their area, filling empty seats while keeping the magnet program. Other families from the Dilworth Elementary zone called for reassignment of middle school students to balance demographics at Sedgefield and Alexander Graham, making the high-poverty Sedgefield a more promising prospect.

Changes at Morehead STEM

Families from Morehead STEM Academy, one of the district’s most popular magnet schools, started arriving at 4 p.m. to be first in line for the 6 p.m. meeting, packing the chamber with supporters in blue and orange “Morehead Strong” shirts.

Morehead is currently a full-magnet K-8 school on the Governors Village campus near UNC Charlotte. The plan redistributes that magnet program among three schools on the campus, turning Nathaniel Alexander (K-2), Morehead (3-5) and Martin (6-8) into neighborhood schools that include a STEM magnet.

Clark pitched the plan as opening up more magnet seats; Morehead currently has more than 850 students on a waiting list for 2017-18.

But parents emphatically disputed that assessment.

“You will be harming every student at Morehead today,” said Eric Emerson, who brought his first-grade son Nate to speak against the plan as well. “It’s working. Now the job is to maintain it, not dismantle it.”

Erin Williams, a teacher at Martin, said she has been dismayed to hear Morehead families speaking dismissively of merging with her school, including references to “dumbing down” the magnet program.

“I ask that we stand strong for all kids,” she said.

Crowding at Ranson

Several students and teachers from Ranson Middle School complained that Clark’s plan adds more than 300 students while increasing an already high poverty level. Small classes and personal attention are especially important for students who arrive with academic disadvantages, they said.

Sixth-grader Dakota Holbrook said her small classes helped her go from below grade level to at grade level on reading exams.

Seventh-grader Terrell Williams said in a crowded school he’s more likely to be labeled as a disciplinary problem, which could sidetrack his hopes of attending an Ivy League school. “If you care about making sure I achieve my future goals, please devise a better plan,” he said.

Hopewell-Hough change

The proposal would move students from the crowded Hough High in Cornelius to the underfilled Hopewell High in Huntersville.

Rick Guerra said his family moved from California and bought a home in the Lake Norman area specifically to be in the zone for the high-performing Hough. He said his son would be forced to move to Hopewell, but suggested he could support the plan if students already at one school would be “grandfathered” to stay.

Clark’s proposal would let 11th and 12th graders stay at their old school. The biggest impact would be on students who start ninth grade next year, because they’d have to switch after one year. Clark said Tuesday she’s considering allowing those students to request a transfer so they could start at the school they’ll be assigned to in 2018.

Montclaire neighborhood

Residents of the Montclaire neighborhood complained that their high school assignment didn’t change. They’re assigned to Harding High, which is almost 10 miles away, and had earlier petitioned to be rezoned for South Mecklenburg or Myers Park, which are less than four miles away. Speakers said they were told to wait for this plan, only to be denied a closer assignment again.

Chantilly neighborhood

The Chantilly neighborhood’s high school assignment is slated to shift from Myers Park, one of the county’s most prestigious public schools, to Garinger, one of the least. Myers Park earned a B from the state, based on student performance on state exams, while Garinger got a D.

“The acdaemic disparity betweenthe two is alarming,” said Chantilly resident Andy Sontag.

The board will hold a student assignment work session at 5 p.m. May 16 in room 267 at the Government Center, and will hold another public hearing at the start of the May 24 meeting.

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