CMS official: Schools ‘busting at the seams’ as student growth exceeds projections

Thousands more students than the state had projected enrolled this fall in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, as some new charter schools have struggled to recruit as many students as anticipated.

CMS had 145,112 students on its 20th day earlier this week, up about 2 percent from last year, according to an unofficial count presented Tuesday. The figure represents about 1,750 more students than what the district projected, and nearly 3,300 students over the state’s expectations, district officials told the school board.

There’s no way to immediately tell for sure why CMS ended up with significantly more students than officials expected. It could just be a reflection of a growing economy. But the unusually divergent figures come as several new charter schools in the area have struggled with enrollment or with their school buildings.

Superintendent Heath Morrison called Tuesday for changes in how the state verifies enrollment at charter schools because the district now finds itself short on cash and teachers to serve the size of its student population.

“Ten days in, we could feel it in the schools,” said CMS Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley. “Our team members were out at the schools saying they were busting at the seams, that class sizes were too large.”

The state’s expectations mean that CMS is receiving funding for fewer teachers than the district should based on actual enrollment.

Shirley said there’s no guarantee that the state will restore funding for the district based on actual enrollment. If it does, CMS would be in line to hire about 60 more teachers, she said. At this point in the year, the pool of qualified teachers is much smaller.

“The challenge with this is the timing,” Shirley said. “Two months after school begins, we’ll still be trying to figure out what staff we’ll have funding for.”

Enrollment falling short

The conflict between the public school system and charter schools comes amid a changing educational landscape in North Carolina. For years, the state had a cap on charter schools at 100. The state legislature lifted the cap in 2011, and this school year is only the second time a significant number of new charters have opened.

Eleven new charters were originally approved to open in the Charlotte area this year. One, the Charlotte STEM Academy, pulled the plug on its opening over the summer.

Concrete Roses STEM Academy told parents last week that it would suddenly shut down. The school had originally projected 560 students in its first year, and later was funded by the state for 300 students. Only 126 students ended up attending.

Several other new charter schools have opened in temporary spaces because their school buildings were not ready, angering some parents and leading them to move students back to CMS.

Entrepreneur High School, which expected to have 180 students in its first year, is still waiting for final approval from county inspectors for its new building off Central Avenue. Principal Hans Plotseneder had said he expected it to be done before classes began, or perhaps after the first week.

Instead, classes have been held on the fourth floor of The Park Conference and Expo Center off Briar Creek Road. Each student was supposed to be provided a laptop, but those have not been distributed. Plotseneder said the parents of 30 students called on the first day and said they wouldn’t bring their children to the temporary location. Six more dropped out this week because they didn’t see an end in sight, he said.

From about 300 applications to Entrepreneur High, attendance dwindled to 145. On Tuesday, 92 students were in class.

Thunderbird Preparatory Academy has split its student body across three temporary locations as it awaits completion of a Cornelius campus. The academy now meets in two churches and a Montessori school in Huntersville. Principal Patty Moreira said she expects a certificate of occupancy any day.

The school had projected enrollment of 488. Moreira said Tuesday that 367 are currently enrolled.

Multiple applications

Joel Medley, director of the state’s Office of Charter Schools, said that enrollment figures for the region’s charter schools were not available yet. He said most charter schools are just this week reaching their 20th day of classes, and that figures would likely not be published until the end of October.

But numbers presented to the school board Tuesday indicate that expectations for charter schools may not match with reality.

CMS had originally projected an increase of 754 students this year. But based on the new charter schools opening and expected growth in existing charters, the state Department of Public Instruction cut its expectations for enrollment by about 2,800 students. That would have led total CMS enrollment to actually decrease by about 800 students.

Morrison said part of the problem stems from parents being able to apply and be accepted into multiple charter schools. Each school may report that they expect the student to attend, when he or she can only choose one.

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