Your Schools

CMS student assignment and the public engagement puzzle

Specific assignment changes always spark reaction, as this 1999 file photo shows.
Specific assignment changes always spark reaction, as this 1999 file photo shows.

It’s a basic rule of public service: While you’re slogging through the work of governing, you can’t pay most people to get engaged.

But step on people’s toes and they’ll show up.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board is embarking on the thorniest of tasks: revisiting student assignment policies.

Board members are a long way from the kind of decisions that draw angry crowds, such as redrawing boundaries or changing magnet rules. But interest is rising to a point where I’m hearing questions about public access.

For several months, the board has been doing important groundwork in committee meetings held on weekday mornings. As many have noted, teachers and students are in class and most adults are at work.

This week CMS started posting videos of those committee meetings online (find them at http://bit.ly/1ijM0Ps). That’s a boon for people who worry that they’re being shut out of crucial talks. Public comments aren’t taken at committee meetings, so this is almost as good as attending.

Watch Thursday’s meeting and you’ll hear board members talk about plans to conduct opinion polls and hold community forums. The challenge is timing. Do it now and there isn’t much to base the discussion on. Do it after proposals have been crafted and people will suspect it’s too late to make a difference.

Superintendent Ann Clark has asked board members to send her suggested survey questions. That alone is no small task, as the questions often shape the answers.

For now, you can stay up to speed by checking the district’s Web page for student assignment documents. Go to the main page, www.cms.k12.nc.us, and find it under Spotlight in the bottom left corner.

And remember there’s a school board election coming up Nov. 3. Nine candidates are vying for three at-large seats, and student assignment is a big issue. You can find what they say about their views at the Observer’s election page, www.charlotteobserver.com/election. With the city primaries in the forefront, you have to scroll down to get to school board news, but we’ll be putting up more as the general election nears.

A lot of community and advocacy groups are also taking an interest in student assignment, so that’s another way to get engaged and stay informed. Among them are the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force (www.opportunitycharmeck.org), the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute (http://ui.uncc.edu/), MeckMin (www.meckmin.org) and OneMECK (www.onemeck.org).

Or you can wait. A year from now, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will likely be in the thick of decisions that affect specific schools, neighborhoods and families. At that point, I suspect, the public engagement will be hard to miss.

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

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