A bitterly divided Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted 6-3 Tuesday to extend Superintendent Ann Clark’s contract through June 2017.
While they couldn’t agree on a plan – four members wanted to hire a new superintendent by this fall at the latest – they agreed that their split is bad for a community facing a potentially divisive student assignment review. Before the search vote, the board spent more than two hours hearing from parents and employees with sharply mixed views about the importance of neighborhood schools and diversity.
“This is a tipping point for us. This is one of those markers in the sand,” said board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart, arguing to stick with the original plan to pick a new leader by this summer.
Five members – Eric Davis, Paul Bailey, Elyse Dashew, Rhonda Lennon and Tom Tate, all white – argued for an 11-month extension, saying the board needs more time to focus on the student assignment review. Four argued against it – Ellis-Stewart, Mary McCray, Thelma Byers-Bailey and Ruby Jones, all black – saying extending Clark’s contract erodes community trust. But Byers-Bailey voted for the 11-month extension without comment.
Debate turned harsh and personal. McCray said “dishonesty and deceitfulness” from some board members, whom she did not name, had cost the district a potential candidate. She added that division – “I’m going to put it out there, a board that is racially divided” – does not bode well for uniting the community around a student assignment plan.
Bailey objected to her characterization of a racial split, giving an emotional tribute to his black son-in-law and saying his vote has nothing to do with race. “We need to get over this,” Bailey said. “It’s done. It was 200 years ago.”
The board agreed to start a search soon, with a specific timeline approved in two weeks.
Clark spoke only once during a long debate in which some board members expressed lack of enthusiasm for her. She noted that her contract says that she has no interest in participating in a search, and she has been consistent in saying she would not be a search candidate. But she said she never ruled out staying longer if asked.
“It would be a rare moment that I can’t imagine that I would walk away from this school district,” she told the board. “I have lived up to the word of my contract. Every word of my contract.”
Talk about assignment
Parents who want the school board to protect their neighborhood schools showed up in force at a public hearing earlier Tuesday, while a smaller group urged the board to stick with its goal of increasing diversity and breaking up concentrations of poverty.
More than 30 speakers showed up for a hearing on assignment goals, which the board is slated to vote on in two weeks. The majority talked about how much they value their public schools close to home, and warned that busing would erode performance and drive off families.
As parent Thomas Hu bluntly put it: “Don’t mess up what’s working.”
But several speakers said racially and economically isolated schools reduce opportunities for all students. And some noted that people speaking against change live in neighborhoods zoned for low-poverty, high-performing schools.
“Consider the privilege and advantage it takes to choose your neighborhood,” said Kayla Romero with a group called Students for Education Reform.
The comments came as the school board moves toward hiring a consultant who would help make decisions about how to meet the goals, which include reducing concentrations of school poverty, protecting successful schools and programs, providing academic options and dealing with school crowding. Several speakers urged the board to add a neighborhood schools goal before approving the list.
Earlier Tuesday, the school board got similar questions, challenges and mixed views in a joint meeting with Mecklenburg County commissioners.
Commissioner Bill James said he’s hearing from parents who are afraid of busing, which “is going to hack everybody off, white, black, Latino, whatever.”
Commissioners’ Chairman Trevor Fuller countered that “the real issue is that we have a school system that’s segregated by race and income.”
“Are we satisfied with that?” Fuller asked. “If we’re not satisfied with it, then we’ve got to do something about it.”
CMS board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart told county officials she thinks fears about widespread busing are unfounded. “At no point have we talked about busing as a tool,” she said. “Busing is not the direction that we’re trying to go in.”
After almost a year of talking about a student assignment review and a superintendent search, the board’s progress has been slow.
The Jan. 29 launch of a CMS online public opinion poll about student assignment has increased public awareness of the ongoing assignment review, with about 7,500 responding in the first week. The poll will remain open to all Mecklenburg residents through Feb. 22, with results expected in March.
The school board plans to hire a consultant soon to help draft specific proposals. In May, it is scheduled to decide whether it’s ready to move forward with changes for 2017-18 or take another year.
Meanwhile, board members are wrestling with a timeline for hiring a superintendent. Clark stepped in after Heath Morrison resigned under pressure in November 2014. In January 2015, the board gave Clark an 18-month contract that said she would not be a candidate for a longer stint at her own request.
However, Clark later told the board she is willing to stay another year, which would avoid a leadership transition in the middle of the student assignment review. For most of 2015, the board was silent about search plans.
Several speakers at Tuesday’s meeting urged the board to extend Clark’s contract, noting that she has worked for CMS for more than 30 years and knows the issues.
However, others have taken issue with keeping her longer. At an October board meeting a group of CMS parents and community members demanded an immediate search, saying the talk of keeping Clark longer represented a back-room deal that shut out the black community. Tuesday night, former board candidate Levester Flowers said the black families that account for 40 percent of CMS enrollment need to be assured “that due process is taking place.”
Thursday: The board’s policy committee continues its discussion of student assignment at 10:30 a.m. in Room 527 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.
Feb. 23: The school board will vote on student assignment goals at its regular meeting, 6 p.m. at the Government Center.
Thursday: My Brother’s Keeper, a leadership and mentoring program for African-American males, will hold a town hall meeting on educational equity from 5 to 8 p.m. at the UNC Charlotte Center City campus, 320 E. Ninth St. CMS board Chair Mary McCray is among the panelists.
Feb. 16: Charlotte integration pioneer Dorothy Counts-Scoggins and CMS board member Eric Davis will be part of a conversation on schools, racial equity and the faith community’s role; 7 p.m. at Myers Park United Methodist Church, 1501 Queens Road. Details: 704-376-8584 or www.mpumc.org.
Feb. 29: Charlotte Magazine will host a panel discussion on “Does Charlotte Offer Equal Public Education to All?” from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. Seventh St. Reservations and details: www.charlottemagazine.com/discussclt