Charlotte’s school board is setting itself up to fail. Here’s what they should do instead

Charlotte’s school board is setting itself up to fail. Here’s what they should do instead
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Last week’s school board meeting was tough to watch. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is working through two emotional issues right now — student assignment and a superintendent search — and both of them were on the agenda.

That meant the meeting turned into a five-hour mess that ended with a board divided across racial lines  — the white members of the board largely disagreeing with the black members. It’s more than just board infighting. The disagreements also laid bare the division in our community between Charlotte’s affluent, suburban areas and lower-income, urban areas.

The meeting has been described as “disheartening,” and it was.

But it was encouraging in one particular way: For really the first time, the school board actually talked candidly about how they feel about the biggest issues facing the district. That’s big for a board that has wanted to keep disagreements out of the public. Maybe now they can move forward on a good solution for Charlotte.

I’m not optimistic based on how the school board is approaching the tasks at hand. I’ll lay out how we got here, then describe what I think is a better approach.

Breaking down the issues

Issue 1 — Student assignment: CMS is in the early stages of a student reassignment plan that will shape how the district decides where children go to school. The current plan revolves around neighborhood schools (close to home, where students living in the district are guaranteed a spot) and magnet schools (regional schools with a theme, where students get in by lottery).

This system is in crisis. Because of Charlotte’s racial and economic segregation in housing, the neighborhood school system means that schools are divided as well. The city’s poorest students are bunched together into low-performing schools, while affluent students are similarly packed into high-performing schools.

The latter isn’t without issues of its own: Suburban schools are overcrowded, and growing more so, as newcomers to the city flock to neighborhoods in the “higher quality” school zones.

No concrete plans have been put out there yet as far as how a new student assignment plan would work.

But one thing is clear — CMS must use student assignment to make things right. Diverse schools, both by race and income, are better for all children. The school district must break up concentrations of poverty.

Several groups of suburban parents have popped up to oppose any changes to neighborhood schools. Their rallying cry has been against “forced busing,” which I think is largely a scare tactic. Their attitude also ignores our city’s responsibility to every child, not just children of privilege.

Why is the school board working on this now? Largely because of the calendar. CMS in theory does a wholesale review of student assignment every six years, and we’re coming up on that mark (the last one in 2011 was mostly a response to the terrible economy, and resulted in closing schools in some poorer neighborhoods).

Issue 2 — New superintendent: Back in 2014, former Superintendent Heath Morrison suddenly resigned from his position after about two years in the job. He initially said he was going to take care of his mother, but it was later revealed that the school board had been presented with a secret report that Morrison had bullied some staff members and misled the board about the cost of a new school at UNC Charlotte. I won’t get into the merits of those claims here. But regardless, the board was divided by the move to oust Morrison, and it has never really recovered.

Ann Clark, who has been with CMS for 30+ years and was Morrison’s deputy superintendent, was promoted to the top job with the contingency that the board soon begin looking for her replacement. The board has kept calling this a search for a “long-term superintendent.” The board has been divided on this as well, with a contingent wanting to keep Clark in the job indefinitely and another wanting to find a new one ASAP.

This is the debate that caused the big racial division last week as the board decided whether to extend Clark’s contract. She was originally supposed to serve into summer 2016. Since basically nothing has been done about finding a new superintendent, there was a discussion about whether to keep her on longer. The white members of the board want to keep Clark. The black members want a new superintendent.

The final vote on the short-term fix of extending Clark’s contract came down 6-3, with Thelma Byers-Bailey joining the white members of the board.

Why the school board is looking at this all wrong

There’s no such thing as a long-term superintendent. School district leaders come and go so quickly that you really couldn’t say Charlotte has had a long-term leader one since the 1970s/80s.

I think it’s better to look at hiring a superintendent for a job to be done as opposed to a long-term savior. I think we all agree that student assignment is that job to be done right now.

Is Ann Clark the right person for it? I don’t think so — unless she comes out soon with a forceful vision on how student assignment should be done. Yes, she has been put in an awkward and uncomfortable position by the school board. But she knows Charlotte better than anybody the board could bring in and should be able to use that to her advantage.

Once the job of student assignment is done and fully implemented, it will have been three or four years and it will be time to move on to the next job and next superintendent.

The school board cannot run student assignment. This is kind of a corollary to the above, but it needs to be said. A political body is never going to have the spine to do what needs to be done. That’s what a superintendent is for. Someone who can take the heat. Like Batman, I guess. The school board thinks they can do it themselves, but they will inevitably fail.

Here’s how they should proceed

(1) Agree that student assignment and the new superintendent need to be linked.

(2) Task Ann Clark with guiding a school bond campaign. This is her job to be done. We have some serious capital needs, mostly new schools. Charlotte hasn’t been very aspirational with school bond issuances compared with other North Carolina counties, and this is the time to go big. Added bonus: This is something everyone, rich and poor, can get behind.

(3) Delay student assignment. I think it’s a travesty that delaying student assignment means our low-income schools will spend another year without a solution, but the only thing worse would be to emerge from the student assignment process with a weak solution.

(4) Find a new superintendent. This needs to be someone with a strong vision for how to make our schools more equitable and our district stronger through that.

(5) Have the new superintendent run student assignment. Yes, the school board should give its input, but they should let the new leader implement the vision that got her the job. Not being entrenched in the community could even be an advantage here.

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