CMS offers an olive branch to the suburbs. It’s not enough

Students pack a classroom at J.M. Alexander Middle School.
Students pack a classroom at J.M. Alexander Middle School. Observer file photo

On Wednesday morning, at the conclusion of a meeting that should have happened long ago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education member Elyse Dashew stood before a gathering of school officials, city leaders and suburban representatives and extended an olive branch. “What I see here today are a bunch of grown-ups who take the time to get together to do what is best for children,” she said.

That may have been true Wednesday, but it also may be too late.

Less than 18 hours before, town boards in Huntersville and Cornelius voted to create study commissions for building and running their own charter schools separate from CMS. Two other suburbs, Matthews and Mint Hill, appear ready to explore the same. It’s precisely what we and others worried about last month when the school board passed the “Municipal Concerns Act of 2018,” which effectively blocked future school construction in the suburbs and threatened to reassign suburban students out of better performing schools unless town leaders promised not to build charter schools for 15 years.

Who could have figured that in the face of such bullying, those towns might start looking seriously at a future without CMS?

A lot of people, in fact. It was a reckless slap at suburban families and leaders who already didn’t trust CMS, and even Superintendent Clayton Wilcox released an extraordinary statement within hours distancing himself from his bosses on the board.

Is it too late for CMS to repair things? Wednesday’s meeting was a step toward finding out, CMS officials told the editorial board. “This is a time for olive branches,” said one, and to that end board members spoke to the audience about working together and talking more. But the board didn’t back down from requiring that towns give them a 15-year promise not to pursue town charter schools. Instead, board members explained that they needed such assurances for capital planning purposes.

That didn’t go over well. “It’s hard to keep an open dialogue when they’re fighting us in this way,” Matthews commissioner Jeff Miller said later.

The relationship between CMS and the suburbs has never been and will never be easy. CMS rightfully wants to push for diversity throughout its district, and suburban parents worry about what that might mean for the stability and proximity of the schools their children attend. It’s what led the four suburbs to sign on to House Bill 514, a controversial law that gave them permission to build town-run charter schools.

But a divorce between CMS and the suburbs isn’t good for anyone. CMS can’t afford to have suburban families leave the district, and the towns would quickly realize what NC lawmakers and local officials have long known: educating kids isn’t easy or cheap.

It may not be too late for CMS to salvage that relationship, but it won’t be done with an ultimatum. It will happen instead with meetings like Wednesday’s — incredibly the first-ever meeting of its kind between CMS, the city and the suburbs, according to board members. First, however, the school board should back off requiring the 15-year promise. If you want to move forward like grown-ups, then everyone needs to act like one.