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CMS boundary review will start in August, bring changes in 2018

Consultant Michael Alves (right) made his first public appearance in Charlotte at Tuesday’s school board meeting. In the background are (l-r) CMS student placement director Scott McCully and consultants Richard Kahlenberg and John Brittain.
Consultant Michael Alves (right) made his first public appearance in Charlotte at Tuesday’s school board meeting. In the background are (l-r) CMS student placement director Scott McCully and consultants Richard Kahlenberg and John Brittain. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

The most challenging phase of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools student assignment review will start in August and culminate a year later, according to a new timeline unveiled Tuesday.

That’s when the board and its consultants plan to study neighborhood school boundaries and busing options, with an eye to making changes for 2018-19.

Tuesday’s timeline outlines a first phase that will sound familiar to all who follow the issue: a review of magnet programs and lottery priorities, with a November 2016 vote on policy changes for 2017-18.

The second phase, reported at a meeting nearly empty of the advocates who track student assignment, provided the first look at an extended timeline, which calls for a vote on any boundary changes in summer 2017.

The two-year schedule means the board can start with the simpler decisions, which affect only the families who choose to seek alternative assignments, and take more time with boundary changes that will affect more students and likely stir more debate.

“We lead with people moving toward something that they are excited about,” Superintendent Ann Clark said.

Of course, nothing is simple about a student assignment review that strives to break up concentrations of poverty, give students alternatives to failing schools, protect schools that work and avoid flight in a highly competitive environment. For some, news of the extended schedule may feel like rounding a bend in a marathon expecting to see the finish line and instead realizing a long, steep hill lies ahead.

The new timeline means boundary decisions will likely be made as a new superintendent arrives and a 2017 school board campaign gears up.

And it means a review that the board has promised to do roughly every six years will take at least two years to complete.

Meanwhile, CMS leaders face a challenge that board member Eric Davis summarized Tuesday.

“We’re walking a very fine line,” he said, trying to move quickly and aggressively without overreaching, hoping to address “the damaging effects of segregation without damaging what’s working in the system today.”

Elusive unity

Board members talked about their hopes of quelling rumors and avoiding divisiveness – what Ericka Ellis-Stewart described as “the green shirts and the orange shirts,” referring to meetings where people have worn T-shirts staking out positions in favor of neighborhood schools or diversity.

The schedule calls for public engagement sessions during both phases. Board members voiced hopes for clear, timely communication and partnership with other elected officials.

The timeline itself, posted late Tuesday afternoon, was a bit of a puzzler, with the second phase labeled “high school feeder areas.” I talked afterward with Carol Sawyer of OneMeck, one of the few student assignment activists in the audience, and we discovered we’d both been messaging CMS officials during the discussion, trying to figure out what the language meant.

“This coded language confused people and spawns mistrust,” she said, adding that she was still trying to decipher the plan Wednesday.

CMS is probably trying to avoid anything inflammatory. Terms like “neighborhood schools,” “diversity” and “busing” all have political and historical connotations that can set people on edge. But it wasn’t until Ellis-Stewart asked Clark whether “high school feeder areas” meant boundaries for nonmagnet schools that I was sure I’d guessed right.

Consultants’ role

Michael Alves, John Brittain and Richard Kahlenberg, the consultants hired to help CMS staff craft options for the board to review, made their first public appearance at Tuesday’s meeting and plan to have someone at the second meeting of each month as their work progresses.

The school board authorized a $135,000 contract with Alves Educational Consultants Group. Because it runs through the end of 2016, the extended timeline doesn’t require extending the contract, said Assistant Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell.

Board members made it clear they want those consultants to address public concerns, not only about the board’s intentions but about their own. Rhonda Lennon said the consulting group’s reputation for pioneering “controlled choice” plans that eliminate geographic assignments has “struck fear into the hearts of many that are very big advocates for neighborhood schools.”

“They’re concerned that you’re going to find a way to wiggle controlled choice into our student assignment plan,” she said.

The board has approved guiding principles that call for preserving the mix of neighborhood-based assignments and magnet options that CMS now has, while using socioeconomic status to shape magnet admissions and boundaries. Alves repeatedly said his group understands that it’s working within the CMS guidelines.

“We don’t come with a plan,” he said. “It will be a team effort.”

Davis pressed further: “Mr. Alves, in your own words, what’s your understanding of our guiding principles?”

When Alves gave general answers, said he hadn’t memorized the principles and stated (incorrectly) that he understood they had been revised in the last 24 hours, Davis urged him to be ready to give better answers: “I’d encourage you in detail to review them.”

Clark reminded the board that responsibility for communication and student assignment decisions remains in local hands.

“This, at the end of the day, is a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plan,” she said.

Learn more

For student assignment updates and documents, look under Spotlight at www.cms.k12.nc.us.

To watch Tuesday’s student assignment discussion, go to www.cms.k12.nc.us/boe/Pages/BoardofEducationMeetingVideos.aspx. The report starts at the 17-minute mark of the May 24 meeting.

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