Can the mayor stage a media event in a CMS school? No? What about the president?

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts gave her 2017 “State of the City” speech at East Mecklenburg High, her alma mater.
Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts gave her 2017 “State of the City” speech at East Mecklenburg High, her alma mater. Observer file photo

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders say they don't want elected officials disrupting classes to promote their causes and stage photo ops with students.

But wait ... what if politicians volunteer to monitor exams? If the governor gets an exception, what about state lawmakers who fund schools? For that matter, what if the president wants to visit, with media and a security team in tow?

On Thursday, as board members parsed a new policy that would restrict elected officials' access during school hours, they realized that there's no dodging the potential for hurt feelings and accusations of unfairness.

"It might become news with a message we're not trying to send," said Elyse Dashew. "Certain elected officials might read this and say, 'Oh, now we're not even allowed in schools.' "

Board members, who are chosen in nonpartisan elections, are trying to prepare for a hard-fought election season this fall, at a time when teachers are mobilizing en masse and CMS has battled state lawmakers over such issues as class sizes and town charter schools.

There's more than political egos at stake. CMS relies on a Republican-dominated state legislature and a Democratic-majority board of county commissioners for the money to educate almost 150,000 students and employ more than 19,000 adults. And a controversial change approved as part of the 2018-19 state budget means that as of July 1, the city of Charlotte and six smaller towns in Mecklenburg County can also kick in money for public education.

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

The proposed policy, which will go to the full board in July, would keep elected officials out of schools from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, except for events open to the general public, personal events involving friends and relatives, or invitations from the principal, which must be approved by the superintendent.

Traditional exceptions for the governor (currently Democrat Roy Cooper) and the state superintendent (currently Republican Mark Johnson) would remain, as long as those officials talk about issues and don't promote political campaigns.

The new one-page policy would replace a two-sentence version approved in 1968 that bans "the appearance of political candidates at schools" during the school day.

Inconsistent rules

CMS General Counsel George Battle III and Government Relations Coordinator Charles Jeter say the latest challenge began in February 2017, when then-Mayor Jennifer Roberts used her alma mater, East Mecklenburg High, as the site of her "State of the City" address, with students dismissed from class to listen. Roberts was engaged in a fierce Democratic primary battle, and Battle and Jeter said top CMS officials learned of the event when a Roberts campaign staffer streamed the event on social media and representatives of the other candidates complained.

This year Jeter tangled with Republican state lawmakers Scott Stone and Dan Bishop, both Republicans representing the southern suburbs, when Stone and Bishop tried to arrange meetings with principals in their districts to talk about a controversial class-size cap. Jeter headed off those meetings, referring questions to Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and his top staff, and later denied Stone's request to hold a news conference about the class-size cap at a school.

In February the school board began discussing the new rules for elected officials, saying more clarity is needed to protect students from distraction, keep principals out of the political crossfire and ensure fairness to all.

“We’ve been arbitrary and capricious on how we have applied this,” Jeter said at the time.

But what about ...

On Thursday, board members realized fairness is easier said than done.

Jeter told the board's policy committee that the new policy would formalize the exceptions for the governor and state superintendent because they are specifically elected to deal with education policy. But board member Sean Strain noted that the same is true of state legislators, while county commissioners are "funding partners."

"If they are driving policy or providing funding, I would think they would be recognized as having a different standing from those who don't," Strain said.

The new policy says that when a principal invites elected officials "for purposes strictly related to receiving information about that school," that official can't bring anyone who doesn't work for CMS. That's designed to prevent school visits from being media events in disguise, Jeter said.

Board member Carol Sawyer asked what would happen if the president of the United States asked to visit, an event that would clearly involve a large entourage and media coverage. That's hardly a common occurrence, but not impossible in a city that's vying to host the 2020 Republican National Convention.

"My guess is we say yes," Jeter replied.

Independence High event.jpg
In November 2017, students in a sophomore honors seminar at Independence High gathered for a student assignment discussion that included three school board members, community activists and an Observer reporter. Ann Doss Helms

Sawyer asked about teachers who want to invite elected officials to speak to classes. Jeter said such requests should be channeled through the chain of command for top-level approval. The policy notes that "the study of political campaigns or election issues by students and teachers" is not prohibited.

Board members also asked about elected officials serving as proctors, or independent observers, for state exams. Some educators have urged them to do so, not only because proctors are desperately needed during test time but because they say it will help policymakers understand the demands of testing.

Jeter said that would qualify as an event open to the general public.

The board will hold public hearings before voting on the new policy.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake, a retired teacher who says she visits about 20 schools a year, expects to be there voicing opposition. She hadn't seen the proposed policy, but said she dislikes the idea of restricting visits.

"I perceive it as being concerned about the quality of what's happening in schools," she said.

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