CMS lists its most crowded schools. What comes next matters to kids and taxpayers.

Myers Park High tops 3,400 students

Myers Park High is definitely the largest school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and North Carolina this year. It may the state's biggest ever.
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Myers Park High is definitely the largest school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and North Carolina this year. It may the state's biggest ever.

Pop quiz: Where would you find the worst crowding in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools?

A. Collinswood Language Academy, a K-8 magnet school.

B. Ardrey Kell High, a huge neighborhood school.

C. Myers Park High, the biggest school in North Carolina.

Answer: Each of these could be correct, depending on which CMS calculation you use.

These tallies matter to students, families and taxpayers across the county as leaders of CMS and seven municipalities prepare to start planning school construction and expansion for years to come.

And despite the seemingly contradictory results, school board members say these numbers will give officials with clashing agendas a chance to work together on the complex task of deciding which areas are most in need of new classrooms — as well as how to meet those needs.

“In order to solve these complicated problems, we all have to understand the complexity,” school board member Elyse Dashew said at the Nov. 7 meeting where the charts were presented.

Tensions over school crowding and boundaries have threatened to split Mecklenburg County and reshape public education across the state. The Municipal Education Advisory Committee, which will hold its first meeting Tuesday, arose from CMS leaders’ dismay over a new state law that allows four suburban towns to create municipal charter schools.

MPHS lunchroom 2018.JPG
With more than 3,400 students, Myers Park High starts lunch at 10:30 a.m. and moves five shifts through by 12:45 p.m., said Principal Mark Bosco. Ann Doss Helms

During long, tense discussion over boundaries and construction, many suburban officials voiced concern that CMS had neglected the needs of their growing towns. Board members, meanwhile, said the prospect of town charter schools could undermine planning and increase school segregation.

The report on school capacity is designed to set the stage for constructive unified planning. Board members Sean Strain and Rhonda Cheek, who represent the suburbs and objected to their colleagues’ earlier responses to suburban concerns, both called it a step in the right direction.

“I appreciate all the nuanced information here,” said Cheek, who has wrangled with CMS planners over capacity and crowding for most of a decade. “This is definitely a project that is timely for so many reasons.”

Here’s a look at the CMS formulas and how they play out for some schools.

The basic calculation

One way to look at the school capacity question is to compare the number of classrooms in the building with current enrollment. For the purposes of this formula, CMS assumes 20 students per classroom is 100 percent full.

On that measure, Collinswood Language Academy in south Charlotte, which was designed for 460 students and currently houses 800, is the most crowded school in CMS at 74 percent over capacity. That should come as no surprise: The K-8 magnet school was the top priority when CMS selected projects for the 2017 bond. A new, larger building is scheduled to open in 2020.

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Other schools that rated as highly crowded on that measure include Ardrey Kell High, Community House Middle, and Selwyn, Sharon and Elizabeth Lane elementary schools, all more than 50 percent over basic building capacity. All are in the southern part of the county and are scheduled for relief — either through expansion or new schools that will take some students — over the next few years.

As straightforward as that formula is, it doesn’t encompass what’s really happening. There are a range of reasons why actual class sizes and space needs to vary. And then there’s the way CMS copes with crowding in the short term ...

Factor in trailers

If it weren’t for mobile classrooms, students would be sitting in each other’s laps at some schools. Collinswood, for example, is making do with 23 classrooms in the building and 24 trailers outside.

So there’s another formula: Take the number of classroom teachers assigned to a school and compare it with the number of available classrooms, including mobiles.

Ardrey Kell tops that list, with more than 3,300 students and 153 teachers in a building with 96 classrooms and 22 trailers. That puts it 30 percent over capacity based on this formula.

Mobile classrooms
CMS uses more than 1,000 mobile classrooms to accommodate overflow enrollment. They symbolize many of the district’s budget challenges, from managing enrollment change to protecting students from attack. John D. Simmons Observer file photo

The 2017 bonds provide for a new high school that will pull students from Ardrey Kell, South Meck, Myers Park and Olympic, but it’s not scheduled to open until 2023.

While trailers can expand classroom space, they create problems of their own. They may gobble up land for playgrounds and sports fields while leaving parking lots, auditoriums and other spaces straining to handle the surging enrollment. Which leads to the third approach ...

The lunchroom formula

CMS uses a cafeteria calculation to represent the strain crowding puts on common spaces. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction recommends that schools should provide at least 12 square feet of lunchroom space per student, with three shifts running through.

When CMS tallied the cafeteria space at each school based on that formula, Myers Park High looks the worst, with only 6.42 square feet per student.

Myers Park has just over 3,400 students, making it North Carolina’s largest public school. Located on a 61-acre campus that has space for recently-added classroom buildings and 19 mobile classrooms, the school south of uptown Charlotte hasn’t had too much trouble making room for growth, Principal Mark Bosco told the Observer earlier this fall.

But instead of the optimal three shifts at lunch, Myers Park has five, starting at 10:30 a.m. That’s a common strategy for coping with crowded cafeterias.

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Other schools that topped the lunchroom crowding list were Huntingtowne Farms, Sharon, Elon Park and Steele Creek elementary schools.

There’s still more

CMS board members and planning staff say the point is that there’s no single, simple way to rank crowding. But they expect the three lists to provide a starting point that helps people from all parts of the county see how their schools stack up.

Before the district makes any decisions it would look at other factors, ranging from the condition of existing schools to zoning laws that affect construction in each municipality. And the lists need to be checked against the reality at each school. When the Observer asked about schools that looked highly crowded on the classroom utilization measure, two of the top three — Northridge Middle and Performance Learning Center — turned out to be based on erroneous classroom counts.

When CMS starts planning for another bond vote or any other form of construction funding, there’s a new factor that could come into play ...

The HB 514 penalty

House Bill 514, introduced by state Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, authorized the towns of Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius to spend city money to create charter schools that could offer priority seating to students who live in those towns. That’s a significant change from other North Carolina charter schools, which don’t have geographic zones and must use a random lottery for seating.

In response, the CMS board passed the Municipal Concerns Act of 2018, which created the advisory board and ordered Superintendent Clayton Wilcox to report on options. That act also orders the superintendent to “prioritize all future capital funding to projects that are located within the municipal limits of Charlotte, Davidson, and Pineville.”

The act says that to get on an equal footing for CMS construction, the four HB 514 towns would have to pass a 15-year moratorium on municipal charter schools.

That priority wouldn’t affect projects already approved, such as an expanded Lansdowne Elementary, scheduled to open in southeast Charlotte in 2021, and would pull students from the crowded Elizabeth Lane Elementary in Matthews.

After that, though, it’s unclear how it might play out. Schools in the four towns that rank high on one or more of the crowding measures include Bailey Middle, J.V. Washam Elementary and Hough High in Cornelius and Matthews Elementary. “Capital funding” also encompasses renovations to older schools that might not be overcrowded.

The first meeting of the education advisory panel will be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday in Room 267 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. It is open to the public.

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