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What do CMS candidates think about student assignment? Let them tell you

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is examining its student assignment plan, with changes expected in 2017-18.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is examining its student assignment plan, with changes expected in 2017-18. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

From now through November 2016, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board is diving deep on student assignment, one of the thorniest issues any school district faces.

The three at-large seats on the nine-member board are up for election this November. That makes it essential for people who care about public education to understand the views of the nine candidates seeking those seats.

Here’s the challenge: Forums and questionnaires have to cover a lot of territory with a lot of people. That can lead to sound bites or information overload. Plus it’s possible for candidates to stick to safe turf – academic achievement is the ultimate goal, we have to listen to constituents, etc. – without tipping their hand on what really matters to them.

To get past that, I gave all candidates a list of five possible priorities for student assignment and asked each to pick their top one. And I offered them up to 500 words, with no interference from me, to explain.

One of my five options, “reduce concentrations of poverty / increase diversity,” was chosen by two candidates: Janeen Bryant and Elyse Dashew. Read Bryant’s piece here and Dashew’s here.

Jeremy Stephenson chose “maintain stability.” Read his piece here.

Levester Flowers chose “strengthen choice and magnet options.” Read his piece here.

Four candidates sent responses but declined to choose a top priority. Read what Larry Bumgarner, Ericka Ellis-Stewart, Mary McCray and Amelia Stinson-Wesley submitted.

Angela Ambroise has not responded.

The two options that got no takers for No. 1 priority were “focus on offering guaranteed seats in schools close to home” and “control costs.”

Why this approach?

I’m eager to hear whether you find this helpful. Some pieces are almost certain to draw strong support and equally strong opposition – just the kind of thing voters want to know going into the voting booth.

The multiple-choice approach was designed to give candidates some control over how they were sorted, and give readers a hook for diving in.

I sent the same query to the current board. McCray, who chairs the board, sent a statement on behalf of the full group explaining why they didn’t think it was appropriate to respond (see a link to that statement at the bottom of this column). McCray and Ellis-Stewart, the two incumbents seeking re-election, did respond as candidates, without naming a top priority.

Some candidates voiced concern about posting their views this early, saying they’re still studying the issues and listening to people. That’s fair. If the candidates and I conclude that this approach is worth the effort, I’ll invite them to update closer to the Nov. 3 election.

So share your thoughts. You can post comments here and on the individual statements. You have my contact information here, and you’ll find contacts for the candidates at the top and bottom of their pieces. I hope this helps everyone engage constructively on a tough but vital voyage.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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