School board has work ahead on bonds

The Observer editorial board

The student assignment debate could help seal the fate of an $805 million bond proposal.
The student assignment debate could help seal the fate of an $805 million bond proposal. Mark Hames

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, already mired in a controversial superintendent search and a complex student assignment debate, wants to add an $805 million bond referendum to its plate.

Give board members points for chutzpah, if nothing else.

Mecklenburg last voted on a bond package in 2013, approving a $290 million bond issue for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Wake County voters passed an $810 million package that year for a system slightly larger than ours.

That, plus the presence of 1,100 mobile classrooms around Mecklenburg school campuses, makes a compelling opening argument for CMS.

Still, voters should approach this still-developing request with their skepticism intact. The key for selling any major bond issue to the public is trust. And trust has been a challenging subject for our school board recently.

There was the whole messy departure of former Superintendent Heath Morrison, which raised questions of honesty and transparency on the board. There’s the more recent tensions among board members over current Superintendent Ann Clark’s contract.

And on top of all that, there’s the ongoing review of student assignment, which has sparked an outcry from middle-class suburban parents who fear their children will be shifted to faraway schools in the name of diversity.

Some are already suggesting they won’t back any bond package unless they’re sure of the board’s commitment to the concept of neighborhood schools. Board chair Mary McCray seems eager to put such fears to rest. As CMS pushes toward a tentative November deadline to hammer out a new student assignment policy, the board “is not trying to do any kind of widespread forced busing,” McCray told the editorial board Friday.

She suggested the board wants to expand magnet school options to improve diversity and to fight off the rising challenge from charter schools. But, she added, it can’t expand those options currently, with space tight in schools across the county.

She and other board members need to recognize that they start out in a place of deep distrust with the public, both in the southern and northern suburbs and in the inner city, where memories of the 2010 school closings still sting. If county commissioners put a bond package on the ballot this November, the board needs to be willing to do the hard work to earn trust.

It must give the public a clear understanding of how current schools look, what they’d look like with the bonds and new student assignment plans in place, and how the cost of one plan fits the goals of the other. It must be honest and transparent.

“We have a compelling case to make,” McCray said.

Given all the tumult around CMS in recent months, few will accept such declarations unquestioningly.

It’s on board members to prove it.