Mecklenburg commissioners must not derail CMS magnet school plan

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will need to add more bus routes if a major expansion of magnet schools wins approval this year.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will need to add more bus routes if a major expansion of magnet schools wins approval this year.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

That old saying leaps to mind as some Mecklenburg County commissioners consider forcing the school board to delay its new diversity-driven magnet school plan.

Sure, the county could do so. It has the power of the purse. Only the commissioners can pave the way for the additional millions Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools would need to add thousands of new magnet school seats and beef up bus routes.

But, even though commissioners can delay the CMS plan, they shouldn’t. They would essentially be rushing in at the eleventh hour and upending more than a year’s worth of slow, careful work by the school board, CMS staff, parents and educational advocates.

Why did commissioners Jim Puckett, Vilma Leake, Pat Cotham and others wait so long to voice their concerns? If they felt so strongly, why didn’t they sit in on the countless school board meetings and public hearings that have led to this moment?

The commissioners question whether the magnet plan will draw focus away from the needs of the low-income children who will remain at high-poverty neighborhood campuses after their magnet-bound peers leave. Puckett fiercely insists that CMS’s focus should be on making high-poverty neighborhood schools succeed, not on using magnets to break up concentrated poverty.

No doubt, his concerns are sincerely held. But those are questions of educational policy. And in North Carolina, educational policy questions are answered by school board members, not county commissioners. Yes, the same state that gives educational policy control to school boards also gives educational budget control to county commissioners. That is awkward, no doubt, when a school board seeks money for policies and programs with which county commissioners disagree.

So, the commissioners’ frustration is understandable. If they need more time to better understand (or critique) the safeguards CMS has in mind for high-poverty neighborhood schools, then perhaps they should get additional time and further CMS staff briefings. In truth, they could have gotten such briefings at any time in the past few months.

However, if the commissioners don’t simply want more time, but rather want to derail the magnet plan, that’s entirely unacceptable. If commissioners commit themselves to the kind of aggressive about-face Puckett is seeking in CMS’s approach to concentrated poverty, wouldn’t they essentially be appointing themselves as the de-facto school board? Wouldn’t they then own the resulting chaos?

That’s not a road they should want to go down. Commissioners need to turn away from Puckett’s ill-considered campaign. If they want to dictate educational policy, they should quit their commissioners’ seats and run for the school board next year.