Your Schools

It’s your business: Guide to CMS board meetings

Controversial topics such as student assignment have drawn overflow crowds to recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meetings.
Controversial topics such as student assignment have drawn overflow crowds to recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meetings. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meetings are a hot ticket these days.

Laugh if you will, but recent meetings focused on student assignment and a superintendent search drew overflow crowds, leaving some to watch from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center lobby. Throw in planning for the 2016-17 budget and a potential school bond package, and you’re looking at a crowded roster of high-interest meetings.

Sunshine Week, when journalists across the country celebrate public access to public business, provides the perfect peg for a refresher on how to make sure you don’t miss anything.

The CMS board normally meets at 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month. But special sessions are cropping up rapidly, and committee meetings that would normally generate little public interest have become hubs of action.

That creates challenges. Earlier this month, for instance, the board held a special meeting on the superintendent search in the middle of a workday, providing less than 24 hours’ public notice instead of the 48 required by North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law.

A spokeswoman said special meetings are rare enough that she wasn’t familiar with that requirement. After that stumble, CMS started sending “week ahead” roundups on meetings.

And here’s the important thing to remember: The law isn’t about providing special privileges for news media. Every citizen who asks is entitled to proper notice of public meetings. CMS created an email address, cmsmeetings@cms.k12.nc.us, for anyone who wants electronic notice of sessions.

For education geeks like me, it’s exciting to see people turn out in person. But if you can’t make a midday meeting or spare a few hours on a school night, you can get pretty close to the full experience online, at the time and place of your choosing.

Here’s what you need to know.

Keeping track

The place to start is the CMS Board of Education Web page, www.cms.k12.nc.us/boe. Click through to meeting dates and agendas and you can find about a month’s worth of meetings for the full board and committees.

“Closed session” means the board will discuss only items exempted from the open meeting requirements. For instance, there are sessions for members to hear appeals on student discipline and personnel issues. The board generally blocks off closed-session time before and after regular meetings as well, using it as needed for matters such as getting legal advice or discussing contract negotiations and personnel matters.

Otherwise any posted meeting is open to the public.

Weighing in

Public comments are generally restricted to the first regular meeting of each month, though hearings on specific topics are sometimes added. Find instructions for signing up on the meetings page.

Note also that you can click the names of board members on the Board of Education page to get their phone numbers and email addresses.

Virtual attendance

Regular board meetings air live on CMS-TV Cable 3 and online. Committee meetings and special sessions are recorded and posted later, generally within a day. Look for video streaming and archive links on the meeting page.

Agendas are helpful in following the discussion – however and whenever you do it. For regular meetings, the agenda generally goes up Thursday or Friday. But the attachments that provide substantive reports often appear the day of the meeting. After you open an agenda, look for “supporting files” below items; that’s where the meat of the report can be found.

State meetings

The State Board of Education makes decisions that affect all public schools, and the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board holds in-depth discussion of issues related to those independently run public schools.

The state board meets the first Wednesday and Thursday of the month, and the charter board meets the second Monday and Tuesday. These meetings are public, but following them is a challenge for people in the Charlotte area.

For starters, they’re usually in Raleigh. They’re audiostreamed, but the quality can be poor, and following a discussion without visuals can be tough. And the recording isn’t archived.

But if you want to give it a try: Go to www.ncpublicschools.org and click “SBE meetings” in the green bar at the very top of the page. Then hover over “Meetings” in the blue bar at the top of that page and select the body you’re interested in. After you choose a meeting agenda, you can click agenda items for attachments that often provide useful details.

Oddly, the link to audio isn’t on that page. Instead, go to http://stateboard.ncpublicschools.gov/live-audio-streaming.

Charter boards

Charter schools are required to comply with N.C. Open Meetings Law, which means their board meetings must be open and posted, with notice of special meetings sent to those who request it.

Because each school has its own board, there’s no central reporting spot. Check the website of a school you’re interested in (they’re listed at www.ncpublicschools.org/charterschools, though it’s generally quicker to Google the school).

From the school site, look for information on the board of directors or trustees. It’s often under “About us,” though each school has a different method for listing meetings and contact information. If you’re stumped, try calling the school. If that fails, contact the state Office of Charter Schools, 919-807-3491. That agency tries to ensure that schools obey the law.

Get on the list

People who want to be notified of CMS board meetings can email cmsmeetings@cms.k12.nc.us or write to CMS Meetings Notice, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St., Fifth Floor, Courier 836, Charlotte, NC 28202 (include name and preferred method of receiving notices, such as email address or mailing address).

To get notice of the state meetings, go to www.ncpublicschools.org and click “Sign up for updates” (top of the blue rail). Or call Lynda Fuller, 919-807-3475.

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

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