Secret meetings, late changes: The story behind the CMS counterpunch on town charters

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members filed into the chamber for their Aug. 28 meeting, few outsiders knew a bombshell was coming. But the school board was about to face some surprises, too.

Eight of the nine board members had spent more than two months meeting privately to craft a resolution that would spell out consequences for four suburban towns if they opted to pursue their newly granted power to create town charter schools.

Despite all the board members’ planning — they had a script to read from the dais and a five-page list of talking points to answer anticipated questions — emails obtained by the Observer show they weren’t prepared for the backlash that emerged almost immediately, including from one of their own board leaders.

“I think we have lost sight of winning the battle and may therefore lose the war,” board member Margaret Marshall emailed two colleagues the day after the vote. She suggested that the board should rescind the most controversial part of the Municipal Concerns Act of 2018, which pushes four towns to the back of the line for CMS construction money unless they renounce the town charter option.

By that point school board Vice Chair Rhonda Cheek, who represents the north suburbs, was blasting her colleagues on social media, calling them “petty, childish (and) vindictive,” and urging people to vote them out of office.

The documents obtained by the Observer through a public records request — more than 450 pages of correspondence, drafts and memos — show that Cheek had been involved in discussions about the plan throughout August, and that colleagues believed she was on board.

The secret negotiations matter to the public — students, families and taxpayers — because the survival of a countywide school district is potentially at stake. Public education advocates across North Carolina are watching the drama in Mecklenburg, where urban-suburban rifts shaded by race and class conflicts are widely viewed as a preview for other parts of the state.

It remains to be seen whether the Aug. 28 vote will prove a turning point in CMS history — and if so, whether it will lead to greater unity or deepen urban-suburban rifts.

Read Next

Read Next

Who led the charge?

The public records illuminate the central role played by former state Rep. Charles Jeter, hired two years ago to guide CMS in its interaction with other government bodies, and the passive stance taken by Superintendent Clayton Wilcox.

Charles Jeter first day
Charles Jeter on his first day as government liaison for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in January 2017. Ann Doss Helms

Jeter and his boss, General Counsel George Battle III, conducted small-group meetings, which aren’t required to be public under state law, and created 12 drafts of the act between June and August, the documents show.

Wilcox, who walked into a political battle when he started in July 2017, was briefed repeatedly but appeared to be trying to avoid the crossfire.

After reviewing the documents, the Observer asked Wilcox to describe his role in developing the plan and his opinion of it now. In an Oct. 9 email, Wilcox said that he had seen drafts of the act but “did not help to edit or author it.”

Shortly before the vote, he added, “I and several others raised concerns about the tone of document and how it would be received.”

On Oct. 30, Wilcox is scheduled to deliver on one of the key mandates of the board’s action: Reporting on possible boundary changes that could shift assignments for hundreds of students in the suburbs and adjacent areas. That includes 12 schools that were listed by name until board members revised the act less than two hours before the meeting.

How it began

Tension between suburban Mecklenburg towns and the Charlotte-based school district dates back decades. But the latest conflict began early in 2017, when state Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, introduced a bill that would allow the towns of Matthews and Mint Hill to create their own charter schools, supported by city tax money and offering preferred seating to residents of the towns.

Adding to the tension was the fact that Matthews and Mint Hill are richer and whiter than the district as a whole. Critics called the move toward town charters a step toward resegregation. Town residents bristled at being labeled racists or elitists.

Brawley said repeatedly that he’d drop his bill — House Bill 514 — if his constituents didn’t want it. CMS leaders tried hard to persuade Matthews officials to withdraw the request.

Brawley CMS
State Rep. Bill Brawley (center) huddles with Republican school board members Rhonda Cheek and Sean Strain after a meeting between the CMS board and state lawmakers to discuss House Bill 514 in January 2018. Ann Doss Helms

There were weeks of meetings — some in private, some in public — with the Foundation for the Carolinas hiring a facilitator to help the two boards work together. CMS board members spoke at their own April meeting and at public forums in Matthews and Huntersville about the problems HB 514 would create.

Read Next

When the votes were counted in Raleigh in June, not only were Matthews and Mint Hill still in the bill but Huntersville and Cornelius had joined in.

Jeter, Battle and board members began talking almost immediately about how to respond, the documents show.

Cooperation and consequences

Two days after HB 514 passed, on June 8, the school board clerk invited members to line up meetings with Jeter and Battle to discuss next steps. Those meetings, like all that followed, would be done in groups small enough that there wouldn’t be a quorum, which exempts them from North Carolina’s Open Meetings law.

On June 26, Jeter, Battle, board Chair Mary McCray and board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart gathered to plan the school board’s response to the bill, according to a timeline Jeter later emailed to a board member.

On July 7, Jeter wrote the first draft of the Municipal Concerns Act of 2018. It would eventually go through 11 revisions, but a two-pronged approach remained constant.

One part called for cooperation. The city of Charlotte and six suburban towns would be invited to work with the school board on an education advisory panel. And CMS would look for opportunities to use school district land and municipal money to build new schools, a capability state legislators added as part of the town charter bill.

The other laid out consequences for towns that pursue their own path.

HB 514 presented CMS with a dilemma. Planning, funding and building new schools takes years. The prospect of town-funded charter schools, which get operating money from the state and county, meant two schools created with public money could end up competing for the same students.

The first draft of the CMS response called for prohibiting future school construction in Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius unless the state repealed HB 514. Soon afterward, board members flipped that section to say CMS would “prioritize all capital funds” to projects in Charlotte, Davidson and Pineville.

The other four towns could get back onto the priority list by passing a 15-year moratorium on creating town charter schools.

During the talks leading up to HB 514, legislators and town officials had also spoken about crowding in suburban schools and keeping students together at schools within their towns. From the beginning, the CMS response called for the superintendent to look at redrawing boundaries to achieve those goals.

Who was heard?

According to Jeter’s notes, released as part of the public records request, board members continued to meet in small groups throughout August, reviewing and revising the act without taking a vote or holding a public discussion.

Sean Strain, who represents the southern suburbs, was the only member who didn’t participate. He said afterward he’d gotten invitations from Jeter to discuss the act but never saw copies and didn’t understand what was at stake until the day of the vote.

Cheek, who chairs a school board committee that oversees interactions with other government bodies, would normally be a key player in a move like this. Her role is now a point of disagreement.

Rhonda Lennon
Rhonda Cheek, District 1 CMS board member

Jeter’s notes say that on Aug. 7, a draft of the act was “shared with Rhonda (Cheek) per a conversation regarding the resolution.” His notes say she was consulted two more times.

On the Friday before the Aug. 28 meeting, Jeter emailed an update to Battle, the superintendent and some of his top staff, saying Battle and Jeter had met with all board members except Strain and Cheek, and those seven “have indicated their strong support.”

Cheek “has been given multiple copies along the way and her requested changes have been included. ... Rhonda has stated she is in favor of the (act),” Jeter said.

But Cheek now says she had been raising concerns all along, and didn’t know all the details of the plan until the last minute.

Wilcox raises concerns

As the vote neared, tensions rose.

In an Oct. 9 email, Wilcox said that when he saw drafts of the act, “I did not comment on the documents because this was clearly articulated to be a Board initiative and document.”

But on the day before the vote, when Wilcox met with board leaders to review the agenda, Wilcox says he raised questions about the tone and impact. He asked that Jeter handle contacts with news media, taking the CMS communications staff who report to Wilcox out of it.

Clayton Wilcox File photo

On Monday afternoon Jeter emailed McCray, Ellis-Stewart and Elyse Dashew a script to read from when they introduced the act from the dais. He also included five pages of answers to anticipated questions.

For instance, Jeter posed the question, “Do you think this helps or hurts CMS’s relationship with the towns? Why??” His answer: “I would imagine this only helps. We’re doing exactly what Rep. Brawley and other elected officials said they wanted us to do.”

Last-minute strategy

The public still had no clue this was coming. North Carolina’s Open Meetings law requires public bodies to post a schedule of meetings, but it doesn’t specify how much detail must be provided about what will happen there.

The day before the Aug. 28 meeting, the agenda said nothing about the Municipal Concerns Act.

In an Oct. 8 interview, Cheek said that she “threw a total flat-out hissy fit at the very end.” She says she especially objected to the parts that spelled out actions regarding specific schools and to the pressure for towns to pass a 15-year moratorium on town charter schools.

On that Tuesday afternoon, with the board meeting scheduled to start at 6 p.m., board members Carol Sawyer and Margaret Marshall worked with Battle to craft a 12th and final draft of the Municipal Concerns Act. They removed a section that directed the superintendent to look at moving students from four crowded suburban schools — Elizabeth Lane Elementary in Matthews and Hough High, Bailey Middle School and Washam Elementary in Cornelius — into eight less-crowded schools nearby.

Instead, the final version asked the superintendent to study “student assignment-based options” to relieve crowding in the four towns. It was posted to the agenda less than an hour before the meeting began.

At 4:38 p.m., Cheek emailed her colleagues to say she had been “hit with a blinding headache” and wouldn’t attend the meeting.

“Anything you want us to share on your behalf?” Ellis-Stewart responded.

At 6:01 p.m., Cheek replied that she would not support the act.

Backlash is quick

Public discussion of the act lasted not quite 30 minutes, with Strain casting the only vote against it.

Criticism and questions began almost immediately. By the morning after the vote, board members were taking flak from elected officials, constituents and commentators ranging from the Observer’s editorial board to former N.C. governor and Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, who now hosts a WBT radio talk show.

Strain and Cheek became increasingly vocal in their opposition, leaving the board with no support from the members elected to represent the suburban towns.

The morning after the vote, Wilcox emailed a link to the Observer’s online opinion page to the board and said he planned to make a public statement.

“I clearly will not take a position in opposition to the Board’s position, nor will I attempt to explain or rationalize the action ...” he wrote.

Margaret Marshall
Margaret Marshall, District 5 CMS board member HANDOUT

At 10:38 p.m. the day after the meeting, Marshall emailed Jeter and two of her colleagues, Dashew and Sawyer, to suggest the board rescind the section that puts the four towns at the bottom of the construction priority list.

“The thing I want most is for CMS to stay intact county wide,” Marshall wrote. “The legislation passed in June clouds that future. I don’t want our actions to make that even more inevitable.”

Sawyer replied early the following morning: “I’ve also lost some sleep over this, but I think we need to stay the course. From a practical standpoint, the news cycle will have moved on in another 24 hours. If we retract at the next meeting, it will start up again.”

Moving forward

So far, the board hasn’t had a motion or a vote on walking back any part of the act. Marshall said Tuesday she decided to wait and hope that everyone “moves toward the middle.”

The school board is waiting to hear Wilcox’s Oct. 30 report on potential boundary changes. As of Oct. 9, every municipality but Matthews had appointed a representative to the advisory board, McCray said. That group will start meeting as early as November, she said, using Wilcox’s report to start discussion.

Mary McCray, Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair Observer file photo Mark Hames

Both McCray and Jeter continue to describe the act as a strong but sensible response to provocation. Asked if she has any regrets about the process in hindsight, McCray cited only one: Spending so much time trying to work with Matthews officials before the HB 514 vote. “They did not negotiate in good faith,” she said.

McCray said she isn’t deterred by the criticism.

“If you consider me a bully for standing up for kids,” she said, “then I’ll be a bully.”

Read Next

Read Next

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