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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

CMS, Towns In Classic Game of Chicken

You could say that suburban towns in Mecklenburg County and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board are at a crossroads following last week’s approval of a controversial policy. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson has some other thoughts on the situation in this commentary.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system is stuck in what I think of as the car repair conundrum.

If you’ve ever been to one of those old-school places to get your car fixed, you might’ve seen some version of this sign: “Our service is good, fast and cheap. You can pick any two.”

CMS finds itself in the same spot. It hopes to offer diversity, academic excellence, and cost efficiency with taxpayer dollars. But the reality is, the most they can give is two out of three. If you value diversity and academics, it requires the inconvenience of moving students around. If you value academics and efficiency, many schools will be segregated. And if you value diversity and efficiency, it’s hard to come up with the money for top-notch academics.

Much of the debate over our schools for the last 20 years, if not longer, has been about a simple question: Which two of those things matter the most?

Back in June, the state legislature passed a bill that would let Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius operate their own charter schools. The bill’s clearly designed to give the suburban towns leverage over CMS – if the school system doesn’t do thing their way, they can now pull out and build schools of their own.

So the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board retaliated. The other night the board slipped something called the Municipal Concerns Act of 2018 onto its agenda. Before most of the public knew what was going on, the board had already passed it. It basically blocks CMS construction in those four suburban towns unless they agree to hold off on charters for at least 15 years.

So now CMS and the suburban towns are locked in a game of chicken, with the fate of thousands of children in the middle of the road.

Charlotte’s suburbs are more diverse than they used to be, but they’re still whiter and wealthier than the rest of the county. Many suburban parents pushing hardest for change value academics and efficiency over diversity. As long as most of us choose to live near other people who look like us, and make about the same money as us, that’s not likely to change.

CMS, meanwhile, has to value diversity and academics over efficiency. How could they not? They’re basically faced with an impossible task: trying to educate nearly 150,000 students who cover a vast range in race, class, background, even country of origin. They have to deal with parents who sometimes want the best for their child at the expense of everybody else’s. CMS deals with the constant pressure of private and charter schools. And they have to do all this in a country where people with guns have repeatedly targeted schoolkids.

There’s no way – no possible way – to handle all of that efficiently.

I don’t think this school board’s latest round of hardball is very smart. Their actions the other night made it look like they don’t want to hear from the public, which is always a bad look when you work for the public.

But I think the board's larger goal is the right one. In a complicated world, it’s not enough to just do math and social studies; it’s important to learn and live together despite all our differences. That kind of education matters in the real world, too. And in a system where there’s no way to have everything, it’s about the best we can do.

Tommy Tomlinson’s commentaries appear every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. They represent his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to his commentaries on wfae.org. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.