In a year of crazy politics, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had a relatively smooth 2016.
The school board came together to choose a new superintendent and launch the first phase of a student assignment plan that combines choice, neighborhood schools and a new push for diversity. And members did their work without the melodrama that marked everything from national campaigns to House Bill 2 battles to the county commissioners’ change of chairmen.
But 2017? Buckle up.
Here are five big challenges awaiting CMS, and a bit about what to expect.
1. The assignment minefield
In 2016 the board crafted a magnet plan that uses socioeconomic status to help award seats in popular programs, a first step toward breaking up concentrations of disadvantaged students. And it happened without creating an explosion of angst from any of the parent and community groups watching warily.
But this is a lot like completing the first level of a computer game: You just move up to a more difficult stage. For CMS, Phase 2 means looking at school boundaries, a notoriously thorny task.
The board has agreed not to do massive, long-distance busing to balance demographics. But any time a district moves neighborhoods from one school zone to another you can expect public outcry.
Superintendent Ann Clark has talked about rolling out draft proposals in January. Meanwhile, 2017 is when everyone will see how the magnet changes play out in real life.
2. A leadership shift
The board has agreed to hire Clayton Wilcox, superintendent of Washington County (Md.) Public Schools, with a contract vote expected Jan. 10.
But that’s just the start. While the superintendent gets most of the attention, leadership comes from a relationship between that person and nine board members, who must strike a balance between support and scrutiny of their top employee.
We’ve seen how that can misfire. In 2014 Heath Morrison went from getting glowing job reviews to being pushed out the door amid allegations of misconduct in short order. For the past two years, Clark has led while some board members have been vocal about their eagerness to replace her.
This will be Wilcox’s fourth superintendency, and he’s no stranger to board friction. He’s leaving his current job with a board split over his performance.
McPherson & Jacobson, the search firm that matched Wilcox and CMS, will be back in 2017 to help them set priorities and work out the relationship.
The first half of 2017 will see an extended hand-off from Clark to Wilcox, who will make regular visits before assuming the superintendency on July 1. The second half will see the campaign for six of nine school board seats move into full gear.
3. A state of turmoil
CMS, which has no taxing authority, can’t isolate itself from the politics of the bodies that pay its bills. That includes North Carolina’s General Assembly, which provides almost 60 percent of the district’s operating budget and makes many of the rules for public education.
Going into 2017, that is partially uncharted and potentially hostile terrain.
In a December special session, the Republican-dominated legislature voted to transfer power from the state Board of Education to newly-elected Republican State Superintendent Mark Johnson. The Board of Education, also led by Republicans, voted this week that it will sue to block that move.
Also in December, another special legislative session to consider rescinding HB2 ended in such turmoil that Observer reporters concluded: “One thing most Republicans agreed on: They had an intense dislike for the Queen City.”
Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican who served two terms in the state House of Representatives, was hired in December to act as the CMS liaison with the legislature and other government bodies. He hopes his former colleagues in Raleigh will separate their distaste for the city of Charlotte from their views on CMS.
Complicating matters is the fact that the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s main teacher group, supports Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, who sits squarely in the cross hairs of legislative leaders. CMS Board Chair Mary McCray is a former president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.
4. Seeking local support
CMS relies on Mecklenburg County commissioners for most of its discretionary spending and all of its construction money.
In January, the county will take a first look at a $798 million school bond request for the November 2017 ballot. Clark has also said that student assignment changes will bring additional transportation costs in the 2017-18 budget.
County officials, who must weigh CMS requests against taxpayers’ interests and the needs of other county-funded services, are traditionally skeptical of the district’s annual pitch for more money. The coming year is unlikely to be an exception.
While CMS leaders once voiced hope that leaders from county government, the city of Charlotte and the six suburban towns would unite to support student assignment changes, that unity has never materialized. Just before the board’s November vote on a magnet plan, county commissioners held a lengthy televised session to air their concerns about the CMS proposal. And Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor has created an education task force that has talked about splitting from CMS or creating its own charter schools.
The coming year will test the balance of support and skepticism CMS can muster from other local bodies.
5. The Trump/DeVos question
Finally, there’s the question of what Donald Trump’s presidency will mean for public education.
He has named Betsy DeVos, a billionaire donor who is a longtime proponent of choice and privatization, as his choice for education secretary. That’s generally viewed as good news for those who support charter schools and vouchers, such as North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarships, but bad news for traditional public schools.
During the campaign Trump talked about providing $20 billion in federal money to support vouchers and charter schools. No one is sure where that would come from, but experts suggest the most likely target is the Title I program for schools with high poverty levels. The current CMS budget includes $42 million in Title I money, which supports 77 schools.