Divided CMS board approves 2018 assignment plan, with hard work still to come

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board limped across the finish line of a two-year student assignment review early Thursday morning in a 6 1/2-hour meeting marked by emotional clashes.

The entire plan, as prepared by Superintendent Ann Clark and revised after a month of community discussions, ultimately won approval. But African-American members of the board repeatedly said minority families and working-class neighborhoods bear the biggest burden.

“If you want the ire of the black community, people of color, dismantle Morehead,” board member Ruby Jones said before one split vote that drew protests from black families with kids at Morehead STEM Academy.

There were moments of board unity, including the approval of plans for paired elementary schools. And some members of the board and public praised the community engagement process that brought schools and neighborhoods together.

“We want to be diverse, not divided,” said Robin Lipe, a parent who spoke in support of the Dilworth-Sedgefield pairing, which was shaped by community suggestions.

But the public hearing that started the meeting also brought threats to leave CMS and defeat school bonds.

“If you do not table this proposal, we will not vote for the bond in November,” said Sherika Kemp, who called a proposal to add neighborhood students to the University Park Creative Arts magnet school “resegregation on the down-low.”

The series of board votes concluded a student assignment review that began in 2015. The process is designed to use a mix of magnets and neighborhood schools to improve academic options and break up concentrations of poverty.

The plans approved at Wednesday’s meeting will change assignments for fewer than 10 percent of the district’s 147,000 students, though the full impact will depend on how many students opt into magnets and whether dissatisfied families leave CMS.

Although the changes do little to break up high concentrations of poverty at dozens of schools, some lauded Clark and the board for making first steps.

Judge Lou Trosch, a West Charlotte High graduate, got repeated applause when he invoked the desegregation plan of 1970 that gave him a diverse experience as a student years later.

“Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools got to be nationally recognized because leaders had the courage to make hard decisions when people were angry and upset,” Trosch said. “I am the person I am today because they had the fortitude to do that. I hope you will have the same fortitude tonight.”

In the month since Clark unveiled the plan, some of the most vocal dissent has come from middle-class and affluent Charlotte neighborhoods facing change. Among the angriest Wednesday were residents of the Eastover Elementary zone, who were reassigned from Alexander Graham to Sedgefield Middle School based on a last-minute change suggested by other families.

“Ann Clark, shame on you,” said Eastover parent Stephanie Sneed-Brown. “All of the Dilworth parents have had a chance to speak. Have the Eastover parents had that opportunity? Absolutely not.”

Black board members said it seemed that some neighborhoods had been heard while others, especially low-income black neighborhoods on Charlotte’s west side, had not.

The rift began early, when the board split on a motion to delay the assignment voting for two weeks.

“We can’t go forward until all the voices have been heard,” said board member Thelma Byers-Bailey. The motion failed, pulling the support of the board’s four black members: Byers-Bailey, Jones, Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Chair Mary McCray.

“Doing nothing is better than doing the wrong thing,” said McCray.

The five white members – Eric Davis, Paul Bailey, Elyse Dashew, Rhonda Lennon and Tom Tate – voted to move ahead with votes. In the hours that followed they spoke briefly about specific motions and voted for all parts of the plan.

Meanwhile, the black members talked at length about unequal educational opportunities and unheard communities.

“We have not been bold, we have not been courageous,” said Ellis-Stewart. “Today we have two Charlottes. There are students who have access to an academically successful school, and those who don’t have access.”

After the meeting, which ended about 12:40 a.m., Clark said she takes seriously the concerns about making sure the changes bring high-quality education.

“The work begins tomorrow to make it successful,” she said.

Here’s how the board voted on parts of the plan that have generated the most discussion. All motions are listed on the agenda, with more information at the student assignment review page.

Paired elementary schools

Proposals: Pair Billingsville and Cotswold elementary schools, with the students in the merged zone attending Billingsville for K-2 and Cotswold for 3-5. All students in both schools would take part in the pre-International Baccalaureate magnet curriculum now in place at Cotswold.

Pair Dilworth and Sedgefield elementaries in a similar arrangement, with Sedgefield taking the youngest group. No magnet program is involved.

Issue: This the most innovative and controversial part of the plan, harkening back to similar pairings during court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s. In this case, the zones are adjacent and the plan addresses crowding as well as diversity.

The Dilworth-Sedgefield pairing generated intense community lobbying, resulting in a revised proposal posted Tuesday. In that plan the pairing remains unchanged but four elementary zones change middle school assignments. Proponents of the “Two Great Middle Schools” plan say it balances demographics and academic opportunities at Alexander Graham and Sedgefield middle schools, making the boundary changes more acceptable to all. Some residents of the Eastover Elementary zone, initially scheduled for no change, have objected to being switched from Alexander Graham to Sedgefield with little notice.

Status: Unanimous approval of Billingsville-Cotswold pairing. Dilworth-Sedgefield approved 8-1, with Byers-Bailey opposed.

Morehead STEM/Governor’s Village

Proposal: Original plan called for turning Morehead STEM Academy, a popular K-8 magnet school, into a partial magnet for grades 3-5, with grades K-2 going to Nathaniel Alexander Elementary and 6-8 going to Martin Middle. A revised proposal posted Tuesday eliminates Martin Middle and turns Nathaniel Alexander and Morehead into partial magnets serving the Nathaniel Alexander zone. The grade levels housed at each school remain to be determined.

Issue: Clark has pitched the changes as a way to offer more seats in a magnet program that has hundreds on the waiting lists, while also extending the science, technology, engineering and math program to neighborhood students in all involved schools. Morehead families said it would water down and potentially destroy a successful magnet.

Status: Approved 6-3, with Jones, Ellis-Stewart and Byers-Bailey opposed.

K-8 changes

Proposal: Turn Bruns, Westerly Hills and Reid Park, which are combined elementary-middle schools, into elementary schools, with some of the middle school students going to a reopened Wilson.

Issue: In 2010 CMS closed three middle schools, including Wilson, and reassigned the students to eight former elementary schools. Earlier this year Clark reviewed all eight and recommended changing these three. But some Westerly Hills and Reid Park families have protested, saying they don’t want their kids sent to a large, high-poverty middle school.

Status: Approved 5-4, with Jones, Ellis-Stewart, Byers-Bailey and McCray opposed.

New magnet programs

Proposal: Add new magnet themes to Crestdale Middle and Long Creek Elementary (creative arts), Northeast and Northridge middle schools (computer science), Eastway Middle (environmental STEM), Harding High (expanded Institute of Technology) and Quail Hollow Middle (Paideia).

Issue: CMS hopes the specialty programs will help fill seats and/or increase socioeconomic diversity while providing the benefits of the programs to all students in the neighborhood schools. Some board members are skeptical about execution of this approach.

Status: Approved 6-3, with Jones, Ellis-Stewart and Byers-Bailey opposed.

Reopen Villa Heights Elementary

Proposal: Turn Villa Heights, a former elementary school which houses a high school academy, into a neighborhood elementary school.

Issue: Neighbors have voiced support for such a school, but CMS projects an extremely high poverty level, which has drawn board criticism. In 2010 CMS categorized Villa Heights, which holds 200 students, as too small to merit the cost of needed renovations, which is estimated at $2.3 million.

Status: Approved unanimously.

Full magnet changes

Proposal: Create neighborhood zones for First Ward and University Park, which are creative arts elementary schools, and Marie G. Davis, which is becoming a K-8 International Baccalaureate magnet school.

Issue: Clark says the plan adds neighborhood seats in popular center city schools, with all students benefiting from the magnet theme. But several students and parents urged voting against the plan for University Park, saying the seats should be saved for students with interest in the arts.

Status: First Ward and Marie G. Davis changes approved 8-1, with Byers-Bailey opposed. University Park approved 5-4, with Jones, Ellis-Stewart, Byers-Bailey and McCray opposed.

Ranson Middle expansion

Proposal: Adjust boundaries to shift students from several areas to Ranson Middle School.

Issue: Several Ranson teachers and families say the change will lead to larger classes and jeopardize academic progress at the high-poverty school.

Status: Approved 5-4, with Jones, Ellis-Stewart, Byers-Bailey and McCray opposed.

Hough-to-Hopewell shift

Proposal: Move students in the Grand Oak Elementary zone and part of the Torrence Creek Elementary zone from Hough High to Hopewell High.

Issue: Some families have objected, noting that Hough has stronger test results and saying they bought homes to get their children into that zone.

Status: Approved unanimously.

Myers Park-to-Garinger shift

Proposal: Assign students in the Oakhurst Elementary zone to Garinger High.

Issue: Families who are currently zoned for Myers Park High said the shift from a high-performing school to a low-performing one would create flight from CMS without doing much to benefit Garinger.

Status: Approved 8-1, with Ellis-Stewart opposed.

South of Fairview

Proposal: Clark’s original plan would have reassigned homes in the part of the Selwyn Elementary zone south of Fairview Road from Selwyn, Alexander Graham Middle and Myers Park High to Sharon Elementary, Carmel Middle and South Mecklenburg High. A revised proposal posted Tuesday changes only the elementary assignment.

Issue: Families argued it was unfair to force their neighborhood to split from classmates at all three levels. They even emailed board members a dramatic four-minute video featuring students who don’t want to be reassigned.

Status: Approved 8-1, with Jones opposed.

Montclaire neighborhood

Proposal: Clark’s original plan brought no change for this neighborhood, which has pushed for years to be reassigned from Harding High, which is almost 10 miles away, to a closer high school. The revised Dilworth-Sedgefield pairing plan reassigns the neighborhood to Myers Park High, which is 4 miles away.

Issue: Residents said they had petitioned earlier for rezoning and been told to wait for this year’s big boundary project, which had getting students closer to home as one of the goals.

Status: Approved 8-1 as part of the Dilworth-Sedgefield package.

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