Education

CMS leader wants $9 million to fortify schools. But he’s not eager to share details.

CMS superintendent says 'heart is heavy, mind is active' after Florida shooting

Five years ago, CMS embarked on a $19 million plan to fortify schools after the shooting at Sandy Hook. Now Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who has held the top job less than a year, is reviewing everything from physical security to safety protocol
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Five years ago, CMS embarked on a $19 million plan to fortify schools after the shooting at Sandy Hook. Now Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who has held the top job less than a year, is reviewing everything from physical security to safety protocol

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Clayton Wilcox plans to seek about $9 million in county money to fortify schools with fences, cameras and “hardened” doors, he said this week.

The preliminary plan came up at a joint meeting Tuesday between the school board and Matthews town commissioners, who voiced anxiety about the safety of students in mobile classrooms. The thought of a shooter attacking the trailers – CMS uses about 1,300 to add space at crowded schools – “really scares me,” said Matthews Mayor Pro Tem John Higdon.

Wilcox and school board members sought to assure town officials that they’re serious about protecting schools, especially in the wake of recent school shootings in Florida and Maryland. But they said protecting schools is neither cheap nor simple. Fencing a campus, for instance, wouldn’t keep someone from shooting into trailers and might make it harder for students to flee if someone were on campus shooting.

If someone is armed and determined to do harm, “there’s no amount of fencing that’s going to stop that from happening,” Wilcox said.

The exchange highlighted another tension, between transparency and secrecy. When Cyndee Patterson of The Lee Institute, who had interviewed all the participants before facilitating the meeting, disclosed the $9 million request and asked Wilcox to elaborate, his first reaction was “not with media in the room.”

Patterson said she understood: “Some of the things they’re working on are things that are not ever going to be public.”

Wilcox at Matthews
Matthews town board members Barbara Dement and Jeff Miller, CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and facilitator Cyndee Patterson (left-right) at Tuesday night’s joint meeting of the school board and Matthews Board of Commissioners. Ann Doss Helms ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Wilcox later offered a broad outline of his plans, but voiced concern about getting too specific. That’s partly because he’s early in the budget process, he said, and wants to talk more with county officials and his own board. But he also noted that just this week, a UNC Charlotte student was arrested and banned from campus after threatening a mass shooting. Campus blueprints and evacuation plans were found in the 20-year-old’s off-campus apartment.

Wilcox said the money would be used for fencing campuses, enhancing surveillance and “hardening doorways.”

“It’s not a simple concept to deal with,” he said.

For instance, many CMS campuses have several buildings and/or encampments of trailers, with students moving between the buildings several times a day. Locked doors and additional security measures could create logjams; the largest CMS high schools have more than 3,000 students.

CMS officials might worry about safety plans getting into the wrong hands, but they also rely on taxpayers – and other elected bodies, such as county commissioners and state legislators – to foot the bill. Members of the public, including the Matthews officials, want to know what the district is doing to protect students.

While $9 million might seem like a big request, it’s unlikely to get close to making all the changes it would take to bring 176 schools up to date on security. Five years ago, after the Sandy Hook school shooting, the CMS board asked for almost $34 million in safety improvements, including $13 million for fencing. The district ended up getting $19 million and eliminating the plan for 8-foot chain-link fences.

Last year voters approved $922 million to build, expand and improve CMS schools, but board Chair Mary McCray said it will take far more than that to keep up with growth, reduce reliance on trailers and upgrade safety across the board.

“We are going to have to go for more large bonds,” she said.

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

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