Four truths to remember before tonight’s school board meeting

Crowds turned out in 1999 when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board debated a choice plan to change the way kids are assigned to schools.
Crowds turned out in 1999 when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board debated a choice plan to change the way kids are assigned to schools.

They’re saying this evening’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting could turn into the educational policy-making equivalent of a high school cafeteria food fight.

We’ve got big, long-simmering, racially-tinged policy matters on the table – including the possible expansion of magnet schools. And on top of that, some African-American parents plan to show up to speak out against what they perceive as a behind-the-scenes effort to extend Ann Clark’s contract as superintendent beyond its expiration date next summer.

It’s easy to see why my colleague Ann Doss Helms, veteran of many a contentious school board meeting, says this could be a heated one. But before everyone shows up ready for a smack-down over schools, let’s remember that this is a very important moment for our children and our community.

We are facing a stubborn problem of income inequality, perhaps more deeply-rooted than other communities are seeing, and our schools provide one of the key levers we can pull to fix it. This could be a moment we look back on as a shining affirmation of Charlotte’s can-do civic spirit, or the moment when it cracked under the weight of our deepening social and racial divisions.

Let’s take a step back, and remember these truths:

We rise or fall together. If the inner-city schools fail, so does Charlotte’s urban core. If the urban core fails, big corporations leave downtown. If they leave, so do the well-paid workers who populate the outer suburbs. There’s no “I’m OK, but you’re not” – at least not for the long haul.

Nobody’s evil here. No one wants to harm your child, or any child. We all want children to succeed. The fact that we might see different paths to success shouldn’t mean we look across the table at each other and think, “You’re a bad person.”

Opposites attract. The people who feel most strongly, on both sides of these issues, would do us all a big favor if they’d get together over coffee or a meal and just start sharing about their families, their childhoods, and their dreams for their children. They’d find they’re a lot more alike than they think – and maybe they’d seek common ground rather than a fight.

Be open and up-front. You can’t prevent tempers from flaring, but orderly, open meetings and policy-forming procedures help minimize the risk of confusion. If school board members want to extend Ann Clark’s contract, for instance, they should say so openly and articulate why – soon. There’s a vacuum here, and folks are rushing to fill it. If board members are trying to dodge this hot potato until after the election, that’s looking like a high-risk move so far.

Let’s hope this evening’s meeting, and the ones to follow, position us to address these complex, crucial challenges as a united community – not as warring tribes. Eric Frazier