CMS should no longer get the benefit of the doubt

As parents we want what is best for our children. As politicians and educators debate competing ideas on educational policy, we try to remain hopeful that those charged with setting policy, and managing a $1.5 billion budget, have the best intentions.

The Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board, and senior administrators of CMS, continue to ask us to trust them. Earlier this year they lost their second handpicked superintendent within the past 5 years, again under questionable circumstances. CMS refuses to tell us why Clayton Wilcox was forced out, citing privacy concerns and state law, even though there are conditions under which some information can be shared. CMS spent $30,000 — almost as much as one full-time teacher assistant position — on a PR firm to provide damage control, while telling us their reasons are sound. The community must simply trust them, we were told.

Sadly, we can no longer give CMS the benefit of the doubt.

For years, CMS has operated under a cloud of secrecy to the frustration of parents, state lawmakers, and the press. Avoiding answering the most basic questions seems to be Standard Operating Procedure for CMS. Transparency and openness should be key values to a public entity that serves such an important role.

Does it feel open when CMS prohibits state legislators from meeting directly with teachers or principals? Across the state, school districts encourage members of the General Assembly to visit schools and engage with educators. The state of North Carolina allocates almost $900 million annually to CMS. Legislators must be each district’s strongest advocates and allies. Sadly, CMS will not allow legislators to meet with principals unless chaperoned by a CMS administration representative. We have never been told why this unofficial policy exists, but we suspect it is either to keep principals from hearing unfiltered information directly from legislators, or vice versa.

Is it transparent when public records requests are routinely ignored despite state law which requires CMS to provide the requested information? I have personally experienced this. As a member of the NC House of Representatives and a CMS parent, I filed two public records requests in February 2018. CMS did not even acknowledge the requests until 14 months later. The very limited information provided appears to have been hand-picked based on content. It was certainly not a complete response. CMS still refuses to provide a response to the simple question of whether the information provided represents all of the communications requested. Is it transparent to only provide public records if compelled by a court order? What are they hiding?

Is it open and transparent to ask taxpayers for more money without showing exactly how the current money is spent? Despite having state-of-the art accounting software required for complying with complex reporting requirements, CMS will not share school-by-school budgets. The word “equity” is used throughout CMS’ website, strategic plan, and proposed budget. However, there is no way for members of the community to evaluate if there is equity in funding. Are schools being funded in a manner that will help achieve results? Is state money allotted for items such as classroom supplies, textbooks or school safety programs actually getting to each school? We will probably never know.

Unfortunately, we can no longer give CMS the benefit of the doubt when they report information. The daily lessons of honesty, openness and transparency should be instilled in our children. Those values should start with those entrusted with the education of our children. CMS administrators and Board Members need to embrace these values and regain our trust.

Scott Stone is a former NC state representative from Mecklenburg County and a candidate for lieutenant governor. Both of his daughters attended CMS schools from K-12.