Thanks, Charlotte, but the school board ‘already knows’ what’s best on equity

CMS board debates talk and action on equity

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members debate the value of creating a citizen equity panel.
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Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members debate the value of creating a citizen equity panel.

It’s troubling, but perhaps unsurprising, that in a discussion last week about equity in CMS schools, school board chair Mary McCray was disdainful of the public she’s supposed to serve. That conversation, which took place at Tuesday’s school board meeting, involved the creation of a citizen advisory panel that could help CMS confront and explore issues surrounding race.

Board members are split on the value of such a panel, but McCray made it clear where she stood, recounting how a previous equity committee’s members visited the classroom she taught and asked useless questions about scissors. They were, she said, a distraction.

The remarks were emblematic of a dismissiveness the school board too often shows the public, one that in this case could undermine the district’s quest to craft and implement an meaningful equity policy. The board has been working on this task for more than a year, the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms reports, and some members believe creating an equity panel is premature until a recently formed CMS Equity Department has time to dig in on the issue. Some, including board members Ruby Jones and Rhonda Cheek, also are skeptical about what a panel could contribute.

“Sitting around a table gets us no further into the doing of what we already know to improve the outcomes of our children,” said Jones. Cheek said she was proud to dissolve a committee whose work was “counting widgets and pencils and computer screens.”

It’s important to note that despite the hesitancy about an equity committee, the board and CMS officials have not shied away from acknowledging and confronting equity issues in the district. CMS has been bold in its efforts to help struggling schools and students, but it also has been aware that being too bold can cause fissures in the community it wants to serve. It’s difficult terrain to navigate, and for the most part CMS has done so thoughtfully.

That doesn’t mean the district and the board “already know” the best path ahead, and it doesn’t mean the board wouldn’t benefit from more of the many smart perspectives this community offers on race. Those voices have helped steer a much-needed discussion about equity in Charlotte, pushing public officials on issues such as policing and affordable housing. Our city benefits when those voices are strong.

In fact, the school board might be uncomfortable with the probability that a new citizen advisory panel wouldn’t be satisfied asking questions about scissors. It would push for bigger change and ask harder questions. But any organization, including CMS, needs to welcome discomfort. There’s a real value to considering perspectives we might not share, to hearing that we’re not as woke as we think we are. And, to be strategic, it’s easier to get buy-in later when you show you want to listen now.

Board members would be wrong to dismiss what a new panel could accomplish based on the shortcomings of previous panels and committees. But welcoming public input is a regular shortcoming of this school board. An equity advisory panel would be a good opportunity to change that.