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Amid Long Day of Student Assignment Discussion, CMS Board Extends Clark's Contract

CMS board members decided Tuesday night to extend Superintendent Ann Clark’s contract another year until they can hire a new superintendent. That decision came after a long day for the board that illustrated just how much they have to juggle.  They got an earful from county commissioners and also from the public anxious about what a new student assignment plan may mean.

The CMS board had eight hours’ worth of meetings yesterday. They kicked them off with a rare visit with county commissioners. They told commissioners an actual student assignment plan is still a long way off, but they’d like to see a plan reduce concentrations of poverty at schools. Commissioner Bill James had some concerns. 

“The fact is that I don’t see any logical or tangible way to reduce high concentration schools absent a return to busing which is going to pack everyone off - both black, white, Latino, it doesn’t matter,” said James. 

School Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said the board isn’t talking about busing kids across the county. After all, one of the goals is not to mess up what’s working. 

“Busing is not the direction that we’re trying to go in,” said Ellis-Stewart. “But we do want to have an impact on those high levels of concentrations of poverty because we recognize it is harder to educate students. Not that it can’t be done, but it is much more difficult.”

That discussion was the preamble for a two hour public hearing. The goals are intended to help lay the foundation for an actual student assignment plan. The CMS meeting was packed. Applause for speakers indicated how divided the room was.

Several speakers praised the board for aiming to reduce concentrations of poverty at schools. Megan Argabright lives in east Charlotte and has a child entering CMS next year.

“I’m proud to be from Charlotte, but I’m not so proud of our school system and the way that we’ve allowed the race and the economic standing of a child to determine the quality of their education. We are better than that,” said Argabright to applause.    

But most people called the board out for what was not in the draft goals, namely, a commitment to keeping kids in schools close to their homes. Many parents took that to mean long bus rides for kids. ChrissyMcShane and Tom Albrecht have children at Polo Ridge Elementary in south Charlotte. 

“It is not acceptable to put children on a bus and ship them in traffic to faraway low-performing schools,” said McShane. “Our children only lose by forced busing.  They lose time driving on buses in traffic. Lose afterschool activities, lose friends, lose their sense of community.”

“We don’t want to affect negatively anybody else in any other community. But the point is we want to keep our local schools our local schools,” said Albrecht.

Kim Kolb said diversity is important, but her top priority is keeping her kids close to home. 

“If we lose our home-school guarantee, I promise you that CMS will lose my family and countless other families like mine to homeschooling and private schools."

The board plans to vote on its student assignment goals in two weeks.  It will then hire a consultant to begin shaping a plan.

Then the meeting shifted to another contentious topic, the future of Superintendent Ann Clark. School board member Eric Davis argued the board shouldn’t be searching for a new superintendent when it’s in the midst of such a controversial subject as student assignment.

“That is not the right time to be recruiting a new superintendent. In fact, we risk failing at both of these very important tasks if we try to do them both simultaneously. 

Ruby Jones disagreed. She said the superintendent search should take precedence.   

“When I’m moving around listening to the many voices, what am I hearing more of? And guess what it is. It’s are you going to keep your word?” said Jones.

Board members were split 5-to-4 on whether to extend Clark’s contract another year. Board chair Mary McCray argued against it. She noted the divide fell along racial lines. 

“How can we devise a plan, if we are a racially divided board and we’re looking at brining all children into the folds of student achievement in our school?  It’s going to be very difficult, very difficult,” said McCray.

Paul Bailey objected to the idea that race may have influenced his decision to extend Clark’s contract.

“I’m voting in this particular case of what is best for this school system. I’ll always do that. I have always done that,” said Bailey. 

Before the final vote, Clark said she wanted to remind the board and the public of this:

“I am not interested in participating in the search for the next superintendent.  What I’m willing to do, as I’ve said consistently in the fall and through tonight, is that I serve at the pleasure of this board,” said Clark. 

She also said she’d be willing to stay longer if asked. She said she forfeited another job opportunity when the board asked her to take the position a year ago. 

The final vote was 6-to-3 for extending Clark’s contract. Although she argued against it, Thelma Byers Bailey ultimately decided to vote in favor of the extension without comment.

The CMS board said a search will begin soon. The board will decide on a timeline for the process at its meeting in two weeks.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.