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County Commissioners Give CMS A Piece Of Their Minds

Lisa Worf

The CMS board is used to getting dressed down from upset parents and community members. It can now add Mecklenburg County commissioners to that list. Tuesday, the commissioners dashed any glimmer of hope the school board had for a bond package on this fall's ballot.

The relationship between CMS and the county can get tense during budget season. But this was something else. 

County Commission Chairman Trevor Fuller called it "criminal" and "the height of irresponsibility" to put an $805 million bond for school construction before voters in November - before CMS has a student assignment plan in place.

"I'm simply not going to commit this community to almost a billion dollars of debt without understanding fully how it's going to address these key problems in our community," said Fuller. "The bond request is incomplete, and it's not ready for action."

Although CMS is still developing a new plan for how to assign students to schools,  CMS Superintendent Ann Clark explained magnets will play a major role. She said the bond package would create additional seats at magnet schools, which will be a key part of the plan to reduce concentrations of poverty. 

Fuller wasn't having it. 

"I don't see how that reduces income segregation in our schools. I don't see how that reduces racial segregation in our schools," replied Fuller.

Commissioner Jim Puckett called the board's efforts to create socio-economic diversity at schools a "shell game." He said it makes sense CMS is losing students to charter schools. 

"In 1999, I sat on the board of education and said, 'Be careful, the free market will come and bite you in the rear.' And that is what we have," said Puckett.

Commissioner VilmaLeake did not mince her words either. She's also a former school board member.

"You closed ten of my schools in districts 2 and 3. We begged you not to close those schools. There are seats in those schools," said Leake.

The CMS board made that decision in 2010 in response to the recession. CMS has since reopened seven of them. Waddell High School now serves as a K-8 language magnet. Clark says the bond package would change that.

"In our capital request is the re-opening of Waddell as a high school," said Clark.

"What kind of high school?" asked Leake.

"A magnet high school to be determined..." began Clark.

"That's still not opening the doors to everyone in that community," said Leake. 

Then Leake accused CMS leaders of turning the public against commissioners in order to force them to support a bond. 

Clark responded when commissioners gave her the chance.   

"I understand that the timing is in your court. The amount is in your court and what on our list is funded is in your court. But it is our job with no other funding source available to us to lift the need up," said Clark.

The tone of the meeting changed toward the end. Commissioner Pat Cotham referred to CMS as a partner and said the tenor of the discussion made her uncomfortable. 

"Anyone watching us would be disappointed. I think we can do better than this," said Cotham.  

Despite the tough words, Fuller left wondering how the county could still contribute to the district's construction requests.

"The needs are great and if we're not going to do the full $800 million bond request this year, there are certainly things we can do this year," said Fuller.

For example, he said, set aside money for construction designs. 

Commissioners want to meet with the CMS board one more time before they approve a budget next month.