School board meeting showed Charlotte is more divided than ever

A protester at Tuesday night’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting shows his support for neighborhood schools.
A protester at Tuesday night’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting shows his support for neighborhood schools. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

On the night of what was perhaps the most profoundly disheartening Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting in recent memory, the thing that stood out to me, oddly, were the cheers.

The school board met Tuesday night to hammer out its path for securing a long-term superintendent, be it Ann Clark or her successor. Also on the agenda: a public hearing on student assignment.

The board spent more than two hours hearing from citizens on both topics.

A suburban parent would demand that the board essentially promise that their children won’t be shuffled off to distant campuses in the quest for racially or socioeconomically diverse campuses.

Cheers would ring out from the like-minded in the packed audience.

A booster for inner-city schools would ask the board to promise that the new student assignment plan will break up the concentrations of poverty that have turned urban campuses into failure factories.

Cheers from the like-minded would ring out.

And so it went for more than two hours, with Team Suburbs and Team Inner-City vying like boosters for rival football squads. They sent up cheer after cheer, as if sheer volume alone could make the board see things their way.

It so sickened board member Tom Tate that he chided the crowd for it. We’re trying to talk about serious issues here, he grumped.

But unfortunately, the rival cheering sections told us all the sad fact we don’t want to acknowledge. That our city is in danger of ripping apart at its sociological seams. We’re at risk of turning into warring clans, with our schools – and our children – in the middle of the battlefield.

You could see the same divide when the subject turned to the question of what to do about Clark’s expiring contract.

Suburbanites generally don’t seem to mind if Clark, a glorified interim superintendent since Heath Morrison’s messy 2014 exit, stays on permanently. Those speaking out for the inner-city tend to virulently oppose that. Some hope to land an African American superintendent to lead our mostly-minority school system.

The four black board members opposed extending her contract. The five white members supported it. It eventually passed, 6-3, with Thelma Byers-Bailey crossing over and joining the white members in voting to extend it for a year.

We don’t want to admit how awful this situation looks. We are desperate to duck the reality of it. The board members, divided white against black, suburban reps versus urban reps, tried to be Charlotte polite about it all for as long as they could Tuesday night. The warring audience factions did, too, sending diverse faces to the podium to argue for both sides.

But ultimately, the old racial resentments and mistrusts that created these fault lines made their way to the surface. Board chair Mary McCray spoke of “dishonesty and deceitfulness” that had caused the board to lose one superintendent candidate – I suspect that was Mo Green, the former school board attorney and Guilford County superintendent who would have been Charlotte’s second African American schools chief.

The board, McCray said, is racially divided. Seemed obvious enough to me. But Paul Bailey objected, saying he has a black son-in-law and doesn’t dwell on race. Isn’t it time, he declared, raising his voice, that we put the mistakes that happened “200 years ago” aside and moved on?

As cringe-worthy as the moment was, he clearly and passionately believed that. But he might have been the only person in the room who couldn’t see the plain, sad fact of where we are. That old William Faulkner quote remains as true as ever: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Ericka Ellis-Stewart said the board faces a crucial “tipping point” moment. The same is true for the community it represents. If we can’t handle these two critical issues with any more class and civic spirit and togetherness than I saw Tuesday night, I shudder to think where this is headed.

We still must name a leader to lead our schools for the long term. We still must decide what, if anything, to do about student assignment and concentrated urban poverty.

How we’ll get a top-notch superintendent to volunteer for this tour of duty is anyone’s guess. Then again, pretty much every major school system in this country seems to have its share of messes. And they all keep getting people to raise their hands for the top job.

Still, if our rallying cry is “We’re less dysfunctional than the next guy!” that’s sad indeed.

Come on, people. We’re better than this. Aren’t we? Eric Frazier