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CMS board plans for a 2016 focused on student assignment

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education has laid out a full calendar for the new year — one that focuses on building a “great plan” to change the district’s student assignment boundaries.

Board members want to address racial and economic isolation on CMS campuses through the review and adjustment of the boundary lines that determine what school children attend. The school board is particularly focused on reducing the number of schools with high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students. Data from UNC Charlotte suggests at least a third of CMS campuses are segregated by poverty.

The calendar board members laid out this month makes a late May meeting a critical point in determining whether student assignment changes will happen for the 2017-18 school year. At that meeting, the school board will make what members call a “go/no go decision” about whether to move forward with the plan they and district staff have crafted — or to wait another year.

“I’d rather have a great plan than just a basic plan that people are going to be complaining about 10 years from now,” board Chair Mary McCray told her colleagues.

If the board decides to move forward, work would continue over the summer — something that tends to be foreign for major community initiatives — as CMS builds toward a final vote in November. “There’s a myth that people go on vacation for eight weeks in the summer,” Superintendent Ann Clark said. “To shut the process down during the summer doesn’t seem prudent.”

In addition to addressing concerns about high-poverty campuses, CMS also wants the student assignment review to lead to better access to academic programs throughout the county, come up with better options for students at under-performing schools and to make more efficient use of buildings and buses.

Next month, CMS will hire a facilitator to engage the public. On Jan. 26, district staff will provide the school board with a report on what other large urban school districts have done to address these issues.

The late winter and early spring will be spent on public meetings, seeking advice from a community task force on student assignment and polling CMS families and the public. All of that work will culminate with an April 12 vote on “guiding principles” that will be the foundation of a specific student assignment plan for the 2017-18 school year. The school board would vote on that plan at the “go/no go” point May 24.

If the board gives a thumbs up to proceed, much of the summer would be spent tweaking the plan based on community engagement sessions. Changes would be presented at a September 27 school board meeting, and the board would begin the approval process in October.

The specifics of that process have yet to be defined, but expect significant community feedback at multiple public hearings across the county. If the student assignment plan is as sweeping and as significant as board members envision, CMS will likely take every opportunity to hear from a broad cross-section of the community before a final vote Nov. 9.

CMS is working against two longstanding criticisms that predate this superintendent and this school board: a lack of transparency and a lack of trust. This assignment plan will mean uncomfortable change for at least some CMS students and families, and the district intends to work extra hard to address the community’s concerns about transparency and trust.

Above all, the calendar provides a framework that will help all of us — board members, families, taxpayers, and journalists — understand where CMS is in the student assignment process and gauge the district’s progress, rather than operating in a vacuum.

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.