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Bracing for a tough conversation about CMS student assignment

If last week’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education meeting was any indication, this community should prepare for a long, uncomfortable student assignment review during the next 18 months.

The board doesn’t plan to vote on school boundaries until sometime in 2016, but members are trying to prepare the community now for the conversation. “We’ve got to do something radically different,” board member Tom Tate said.

There are a few issues at play.

First, some members of the board feel strongly that this review of the student assignment plan is an opportunity to address other issues within CMS, such as poverty, race relations, and academic achievement. Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart is among those who believe this round of boundary revisions could be a way to make CMS campuses more diverse. She has said that she’d be open to the idea of not setting a “home school” so families that aren’t happy with their home school have more options. Currently, some parents feel like they’re settling for a mediocre home school because that’s where their children are assigned.

Other board members disagree. Rhonda Lennon called the idea of eliminating home school assignments “abhorrent.”

“We need to be in the education business, not transportation,” Lennon said in a Facebook posting. “CMS cannot fix all the problems in our society in 7 hours a day and 180 days a year.”

Second, the district faces a tenuous relationship with charter schools, particularly in the affluent northern end of Mecklenburg County. Families have left CMS to join public charters such as Lake Norman Charter, Community School of Davidson, and Pine Lake Preparatory Academy. In many cases, that decision was driven by dissatisfaction with the family’s home school assignment.

Any significant changes in school boundaries — particularly in North Mecklenburg — could push more parents to choose charter schools over CMS.

The last time CMS adjusted its student assignment plan was in 2010, under a budget squeeze. The process was long and painful; the district decided to close some schools, primarily in urban neighborhoods, as a cost-cutting measure. Police had to make arrests after one meeting became disorderly.

While there’s not much the district can do to avoid controversy — some parents will always feel like they’re getting the short end of the assignment stick — the district wants to try.

Board Chair Mary McCray said she would like the Charlotte City Council and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners to be involved in public conversations about the student assignment plan. CMS also hopes PTAs and nonprofits will facilitate meetings that give families a voice in the process.

The board has tentatively targeted next November for a final decision on the new boundaries, which would take effect the following school year.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.