Responding to parent concerns about busing and neighborhood schools, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board agreed Thursday to rewrite its student assignment goals to emphasize choice and downplay language that has created controversy.
With real decisions about boundaries, diversity and magnet programs still months away, members focused Thursday on allaying fears about what might happen.
On Tuesday night, parents calling for a stronger emphasis on neighborhood schools packed a public hearing on the goals, with dozens overflowing the meeting chamber and watching from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center lobby. They aired concerns that attempts to reduce poverty levels at some schools would create long bus rides, disrupt successful schools and drive families out of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
“If we perpetuate this whole climate of fear for another year, there will be nobody left to reassign,” board member Rhonda Lennon said Thursday, at a committee meeting attended by eight of nine board members. She asked the board to vote at its next meeting that “we’re not going to force busing.”
The challenge is that there’s no clear definition of busing. CMS currently has the nation’s 11th-largest bus fleet, with more than 1,000 buses taking about 93,000 students to neighborhood and magnet schools.
Tom Tate, who chairs the policy committee, argued that it’s too early to take options off the table, with decisions about boundaries, magnets and transportation yet to be discussed. The board plans to hire a consultant in mid-March to help the board craft options.
“We haven’t decided anything yet,” Tate said.
“You’re the only person at this table that thinks we should bus kids,” Lennon said. “Until it comes off the table there will be great angst.”
“Then I would recommend that we do nothing about student assignment at all, ever again,” said a clearly frustrated Tate. “That makes no sense to me.”
After more heated exchanges with Lennon and difficulty getting the rest of the group to make decisions, Tate handed the meeting off to Vice Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart and declined to participate. “I don’t think y’all want to do this,” Tate said. “I’ve given up on focus. If you want to take it on, take it on.”
The rest of the members present agreed to reword the list of goals, putting a new item at the top of the list: “Provide choice and promote equitable access to varied and viable programmatic options for all children.”
While members have always said the list of goals wasn’t ranked by priority, they agreed Thursday that the goal that had been listed first – “Reduce the number of schools with high concentrations of poor and high needs children” – grabbed public attention and fueled worries about how that will be done.
That item remains, but it will now be the third bullet point.
“Diversity and breaking up concentrations of poverty still is a goal, but we talked about it in terms of adding a greater sense of context,” Ellis-Stewart said afterward.
Members also said cumbersome wording of one goal led some people to believe that CMS is out to maximize busing, when they were trying to say they wanted to make efficient use of buses, buildings and other resources to relieve crowding. They agreed to reword that goal before a Feb. 23 vote.
Several speakers at Tuesday’s public hearing urged the board to add a goal that guarantees students seats in schools close to home, but the group didn’t discuss that Thursday.
CMS staff told the committee that 13,148 people have taken part in a poll seeking to gauge public attitudes toward diversity, bus rides, academic programs and other issues related to the assignment review. Assistant Superintendent LaTarzja Henry said her staff has been taking laptops and paper copies of the survey to shopping centers, stores and other places where people congregate, hoping to reach people who might not see it online. It has been translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, French, Arabic, Burmese and Nepali, she said.
The poll remains open through Feb. 22, and the district plans to target neighborhoods where participation so far has been low.
The March policy committee meeting will move to a larger room and an evening time (see accompanying box) in an effort to let more people attend. The morning committee meetings have been drawing about a dozen spectators, though Thursday’s had a crowd of about 35.
Despite flare-ups of tension between board members Tuesday and Thursday, members ended Thursday’s meeting by saying they believe it’s part of a constructive process.
“Change doesn’t occur without conflict,” said Paul Bailey.
“We disagree on a lot less than we agree on,” said Lennon.
Ellis-Stewart quoted the title of a book by Martin Luther King Jr.: “Where do we go from here: Chaos or community?”
“This is going to be a difficult conversation,” she said.
Feb. 22: Last day to participate in CMS student assignment poll. Find the link at www.cms.k12.nc.us
Feb. 23: The school board will vote on student assignment goals at its regular meeting, 6 p.m. at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.
March 10: Policy committee meets from 6-8 p.m. in Room 267 of the Government Center.
Tuesday: 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