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CMS parents and elected officials pack Cornelius student assignment meeting

Superintendent Ann Clark (standing, right) and District 1 school board member Rhonda Lennon address a packed house at Cornelius Town Hall on Thursday.
Superintendent Ann Clark (standing, right) and District 1 school board member Rhonda Lennon address a packed house at Cornelius Town Hall on Thursday. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

For months now, as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board has taken early steps in a student assignment review, there have been rumblings that the suburbs were being ignored.

Some said advocates for urban schools were dominating the conversation. Some predicted that suburban families who are happy with their schools wouldn’t mobilize until confronted with change. Some questioned whether elected officials value the views of folks outside Charlotte.

School board member Rhonda Lennon, who represents the north suburban District 1, put that all to the test Thursday night. She asked constituents to gather at Cornelius Town Hall for an update and discussion. She expected about 50 but had seats for 80.

By the time extra chairs had been dragged into every available space, with people spilling into the hall, I counted 150. Most were parents and other interested community members, but there were also four more school board members, two state legislators, two Mecklenburg County commissioners and at least four town officials. Superintendent Ann Clark made an unscheduled appearance. Lennon beamed like the hostess of a successful party.

Clark told the group she was there to listen, not talk. “I’m thrilled that we’re at capacity,” she said. “People often don’t get engaged until the B word comes up, and the B word is ‘boundaries.’ ”

The board is a long way from redrawing school boundaries. On Tuesday, members will hold their first full-board discussion of broad goals. Decisions about attendance zones, magnet programs and any other changes for 2017-18 will be made this fall – unless the board decides it needs another year.

And the District 1 meeting wasn’t about staking out positions. Instead, the crowd broke into smaller groups to talk about concerns and priorities. Facilitators took notes and will work with Lennon to figure out which themes emerged.

There was no unified Voice of the Suburbs, at least not that I could detect wandering from group to group. Lots of parents talked about the importance of having stable schools in their own communities, but there was also talk about the value of racial and economic diversity and tactics to achieve it. Some lamented the scarcity of magnet schools in their towns. Others said they think a countywide district is too big to make the best decisions for all communities.

School board Vice Chair Elyse Dashew, a newly elected member who lives in south Charlotte, said she was most struck by “how happy people are with their schools.” That creates fear of change, she said, but also signals strong support for CMS that can be channeled into the tough steps ahead.

Clark said afterward that she was particularly intrigued by an exchange we both heard. Parents were talking about the importance of strong schools. A father asked them to define that. He noted that his son could attend a low-poverty suburban elementary school but he chooses to send him to a high-poverty magnet, where his son excels. Another dad said he defines strong schools as ones with lots of parent involvement, which for him means not having to drive long distances to after-hours events. Yet another parent who commutes to Charlotte said schools near workplaces could be more conducive to parent engagement.

It sounded a lot like the issues the board has grappled with. Answers haven’t come easily. As state Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican who attended Thursday’s meeting, observed, “School board may be the toughest elected position short of the president of the United States.”

Even without any big defining moments, everyone I talked to seemed cheered by the turnout of citizens and officials. Dashew gives Lennon credit for a well-organized event, publicized on social media and supported by a network of families and business people who support public education.

I often hear complaints that by the time the school board holds a formal public hearing on issues it’s too late to make a difference. Whether that’s right or wrong, there’s a lesson here: Any neighborhood or interest group that worries about being left out of student assignment decisions should invite the board to come to you (find contact information at www.cms.k12.nc.us/boe). Members have been saying they’re eager to take their talks on the road. It sure looks like they’re serious.

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

What’s next?

Board meeting

The school board meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Room 267 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St., to discuss student assignment goals. Public comments will not be taken at this meeting.

Public hearing

The Feb. 9 board meeting will include a public hearing on student assignment goals.

Information sessions

The League of Women Voters will host two updates on student assignment, with board member Tom Tate and other speakers. Contact: Helene Hilger, hhilger@uncc.edu, 704-568-5431.

▪ 10 to 11:30 a.m. Jan. 30 at the South County Regional Library, 5801 Rea Road.

▪ 10 to 11:30 a.m. Feb. 6 at North County Regional Library, 16500 Holly Crest Lane, Huntersville.

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