Education

CMS says elected officials can’t use students as props ... with some exceptions

Gov. Roy Cooper toured Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Cotswold Elementary School in January 2018 with a crowd of photographers and reporters in tow.
Gov. Roy Cooper toured Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Cotswold Elementary School in January 2018 with a crowd of photographers and reporters in tow. Observer file photo

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board has decided to restrict other elected officials’ access to schools while students are there, a potentially touchy move for a board that depends on those officials for funding.

The topic came up at the board’s recent planning retreat, which landed in the midst of political wrangling over the hot-button topic of K-3 class-size caps. On Friday, when the board discussed how much access to allow, state Rep. Scott Stone asked for permission to use a school for a news conference on the class-size compromise, which is expected to win final approval this week.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools government relations coordinator Charles Jeter cited that request as the kind of event that can distract principals and teachers. Jeter – who was, like Stone, a Republican state legislator before taking the CMS job in 2016 – has clashed with Stone over the impact the class-size cap would have had on schools.

But Jeter and the school board’s lawyer, George Battle III, said the decision to clarify ground rules for school visits is not a reaction to recent events, but an attempt to bring consistency to long-standing practices.

Board policy states that “the appearance of political candidates at schools for assemblies or meetings with classes during the school day is not considered in the best interest of the instructional program.” Battle said for at least 20 years, district officials have considered all elected officials potential candidates and avoided letting them intrude on school time.

Mayor at East Meck
CMS officials say they were inconsistent when they allowed then-Mayor Jennifer Roberts to give a speech at East Mecklenburg High during school hours in February 2017. Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

But last February then-Mayor Jennifer Roberts gave her state of the city speech at East Mecklenburg High, with students assembled to listen. A few months later she ran for re-election and was defeated in the Democratic primary.

“We’ve been arbitrary and capricious on how we have applied this,” Jeter told the board.

Vice Chair Rhonda Cheek noted that Gov. Roy Cooper (a Democrat) and state Superintendent Mark Johnson (a Republican) both used CMS schools as the setting for recent news conferences on the class-size cap.

“We have always given exceptions to the governor and state superintendent,” Jeter said.

East Meck students
East Mecklenburg High students were brought in for then-Mayor Jennifer Roberts’ 2017 state of the city speech. Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox raised concerns about blocking elected officials. “I just want people to feel welcome to visit our schools,” he said.

The relationship with other elected officials is delicate because CMS relies on state lawmakers for almost 60 percent of its budget and Mecklenburg County commissioners for about 30 percent. In addition, elected officials may be CMS parents and/or county taxpayers.

Stone, who has children in CMS, took umbrage recently when Jeter intercepted his attempt to line up fact-finding meetings about the class-size cap with principals in his south Charlotte district. Jeter said he or Wilcox would answer any questions related to state policy and the school board’s legislative agenda.

Wilcox, board members and other CMS staff who took part in the planning retreat agreed that official visits can be disruptive. Whether it’s a school board member, another elected official or a top administrator stopping by, principals scramble to spruce up the building and put on their best face, Wilcox said.

On Friday, school board members agreed they would provide at least two days’ notice and clear their plans with Wilcox and his top staff before making any visits during school time. They noted that all elected officials can come to public events, such as sports, open houses and plays. The district also holds annual “Walk In My Shoes” events in which elected officials are invited to shadow educators.

Outside of school hours, politicians can pay to use CMS facilities just like other community organizations do. For instance, Margaret Marshall, who was elected to the school board in November, rented a school for her campaign kick-off.

Jeter said Saturday that elected officials who simply want to observe a school can do so the same way board members do, with advance notice to central offices. But he said politicians who want to bring news media, make statements and disrupt classes will be told “no thanks.”

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

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