The Observer’s Ann Doss Helms published a superbly researched report Thursday detailing the story behind the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education’s Aug. 28 decision to slap four suburban towns that were considering building their own town-run charter schools. That CMS move — the “Municipal Concerns Act of 2018” — effectively blocked school construction in Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius and Huntersville if those towns didn’t approve a 15-year moratorium on building their own charter schools.
We thought the school board was reckless then to further damage an already fragile relationship with the suburbs, and the towns have responded exactly as you might expect — by looking more seriously at a future without CMS. That’s not good for anyone, including children in those towns.
But Helms’s report, which relied on more than 450 pages of correspondence, drafts and memos between school board members and CMS officials, carries another lesson that the school board has long needed to learn: It doesn’t pay to sneak around on the public you serve.
As Helms reports: “Eight of the nine board members had spent more than two months meeting privately to craft a resolution that would spell out consequences for four suburban towns if they opted to pursue their newly granted power to create town charter schools.” (Sean Strain, who represents the southern suburbs, didn’t participate, Helms reports.) Led by General Counsel George Battle III and CMS official Charles Jeter — a former N.C. representative who should know better — school board members met in small groups that weren’t required to be public under state law. Those groups created 12 drafts of the act between June and August.
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The public, of course, didn’t know what was coming until Aug. 28, when the school board revealed and quickly passed the act. Then it was the board’s turn to be surprised. The backlash to the Municipal Concerns Act was fierce, enough so that board member Margaret Marshall suggested the board retreat on its 15-year threat. Even CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who had been lukewarm about the act from the start, distanced himself from his bosses within hours with a startling public statement.
All of which could have been avoided if the school board had simply done what public bodies are supposed to do — be public. It’s not uncommon for politicians to meet in small groups to discuss some issues privately, but school board members should have then held open meetings about the act instead of immediately ramming it through. If they had, they probably would have learned earlier about the backlash it prompted. Perhaps that would have resulted in a rethinking of tone and content. Perhaps it would have sparked more meaningful discussions with town leaders.
But that’s not how this board has operated under the leadership of chair Mary McCray, who regularly has been less than forthcoming — and sometimes outright dishonest — with the public she’s supposed to serve. Once again, that’s come back to bite the school board. Once again, it taints the very good work CMS does for the children and families of Mecklenburg County. Now, the district faces a fractured relationship with its suburbs, along with a public that has one more reason not to trust the officials elected to lead our schools.