Opinion

Some officials are getting booted off the stage at CMS graduations this year. They're not happy about it

West Mecklenburg High celebrates its 2017 graduation. It’s one of eight CMS schools that saw 2018 graduation rates drop at least 10 percentage points based on a new state tracking system.
West Mecklenburg High celebrates its 2017 graduation. It’s one of eight CMS schools that saw 2018 graduation rates drop at least 10 percentage points based on a new state tracking system. Observer file photo

Of the many challenges facing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the following falls squarely in the Not A Big Deal category.

But it is a curious deal.

Each year at high school graduations in Mecklenburg County, elected officials have been invited to be on stage and shake graduates' hands as they receive their diplomas. But when graduations begin in earnest this week, those officials will be sitting elsewhere. In emails last month to Mecklenburg commissioners, Charlotte City Council members and N.C. lawmakers, CMS informed them that they've been booted off the stage to a seating area nearby.

At least some of the electeds, as they like to call themselves, are not happy about it.

"I am so disappointed," said at-large Mecklenburg Commissioner Pat Cotham, who makes it to about 15 graduations a year. "Families appreciate it. I hear comments all the time."

At-large City Council Member Julie Eiselt, who is a regular attendee of Myers Park High graduations, is merely saddened. "I really enjoy sitting on the stage and shaking hands with the kids — it's just really neat to see the excitement in their eyes," she told the editorial board. But, she said: "If the superintendent thinks that's a better way to do it, I'm fine with that."

For some electeds, being on stage was a political perk — a chance perhaps to get a little face time in front of constituents during a happy moment. (Said one state lawmaker: "We can't shake the hands of the students whose education we pay for?") Others, including Eiselt and Cotham, seem to genuinely believe it's good for these graduates to know their city and county are behind them and appreciate their accomplishment.

Then again, as Eiselt says: "I don't think they really care about us being there." So — not a big deal.

Which brings us to the curious part. If you've been to a graduation or two, you know there's enough room for officials on the CMS stage, and one extra handshake isn't really slowing things down. Why kick the politicians off the stage? CMS wants the focus of graduation to be on their students and their families, and the new policy is a diplomatic way of telling electeds: It's not about you. Which is very true.

But there could be a bit more going on here. It's no secret that there's tension surrounding the relationships CMS has with the Board of Commissioners and N.C. General Assembly, both of which fund public schools. Each year, including this one, CMS finds itself rightly disappointed with the amount of money coming from the county and the state. This year, school district officials are especially unhappy with the impending passage of N.C. House Bill 514, which gives cities and towns the right to open and run their own charter schools.

Is the new graduation policy a poke from CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox at those who've done the district wrong? If so, that may be satisfying in the short term. But, rightly or wrongly, it might not be helpful to the relationship down the road. As Mecklenburg Commissioner Jim Puckett told the editorial board: "CMS has the right to manage all their processes and events as they see fit. I would advise them, as I have my own daughters, make sure you consider the consequences of all your decisions."

Peter: pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
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