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After a year away, critical issues for CMS are easy to spot

This was how things looked between Superintendent Heath Morrison and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board when I left the beat a year ago.
This was how things looked between Superintendent Heath Morrison and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board when I left the beat a year ago. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

When I took on a one-year assignment covering the Affordable Care Act last summer, I knew I was plunging into a new challenge.

What I didn’t anticipate was how new the education beat would feel as I return for a 13th year.

When I left, the harmonious relationship between Superintendent Heath Morrison and the school board was the envy of other local officials. Now the district is dealing with the aftermath of the messiest breakup since a CMS superintendent got sacked on live TV in the 1970s.

Before I left, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was constantly seeking ways to identify low-performing schools for help without stigmatizing them (remember Beacon, FOCUS and EquityPlusII?). Now the state has slapped D’s and F’s on those schools, with no clear plan for making them better.

A year ago teachers were underpaid, teacher assistants were under fire and the summer budget process was a mess.

OK, some things haven’t changed.

I’ve joked with my editors about writing “CMS at a crossroads” stories every August. Never has it seemed as true as it does this summer.

Here are five big issues I see as we move into 2015-16.

▪ Student assignment: Since I started the beat in 2002, the focus has been on neighborhood schools. Even when changes have been required, the board has tried to minimize disruption.

Now there’s a push to re-examine the foundations of the CMS plan, with an eye to breaking up the concentrations of poverty that mark the perpetually struggling schools. Is the board willing to go there? Is the community?

▪ Choice and competition: Charlotte has seen two more charter schools fail in the past year, but hopes are high for new and existing charters. A state Supreme Court ruling on private-school vouchers is looming. How will competition shape public education moving forward? Will CMS lose significant market share?

▪ Testing and data: Even before I left, good, consistent data on student and school performance was getting harder to come by. Can the state and CMS settle on meaningful measures, keep them in place for several years and make them readily available to the public without crushing classrooms under an avalanche of testing?

▪ Race and culture: Morrison caught flak when he came to Charlotte talking about confronting implicit bias and other racial issues. Work on cultural competency moved ahead in a lower-key manner.

National events of the past year make it clear that racial tensions remain a huge factor in American life, from public schools to the criminal justice system. What comes next, as CMS faces the prospect of opening school during a local police shooting trial and a national push to confront racism?

▪ CMS leadership: There’s a school board campaign and a superintendent search in the near future. Can the community break out of a cycle of celebrating a shiny new leader, then becoming disillusioned in two to five years?

Here at the Observer you’ve no doubt noticed changes, too, as we work to deliver the news in ways that work for our ever-evolving readership. One thing I hope to preserve is the rapport we’ve built over the past dozen years. Readers’ tips, critiques, questions and commentary are one of the best parts of the beat. I look forward to reconnecting as I dive back in.

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