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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Almost 300 Want This Vital But Thankless CMS Equity Task; Board Must Choose 40

Equity is the theme of this Nick Napoletano mural at the Hal Marshall Annex in uptown Charlotte.

Updated 3:15 p.m. Monday: The board has postponed the selection of an equity committee to its Oct. 22 meeting because board Chair Mary McCray is ill, the district announced Monday afternoon.  

No pay. No authority. Lots of data to digest and a mission that has stymied some of America's best thinkers.

You might think serving on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools equity committee would be a hard sell. But 284 people have applied, and the school board must figure out how to choose up to 40 of them Tuesday.

Board Chair Mary McCray laughed when asked if it would be a difficult task. "I am positive it will be," she said, "but you know, it is something that we have committed to do and we’re going to do it."

Equity is the quest to ensure that all students get a fair chance at reaching their full potential, with high quality teachers, meaningful lessons and the support they need to overcome barriers. Public schools across the country are trying to do that, but black, Hispanic and low-income students consistently fare worse on measures of educational opportunity and achievement.

The CMS board has spent two years wrestling with how to define and measure equity. They've argued vigorously over how and whether to create a volunteer advisory panel.

So why do so many want to take it on?

Laura Handler answered that question on her application by listing names of children she has worked with as a teacher and bilingual advocate: "Francisco. Lucia. Rodrigo. Osiris."

"Equity is complex. Equity requires deliberate, intentional, difficult decisions," the Charlotte mother wrote. "But most importantly, equity is imperative to improving the lives of residents of our community."

Handler is among 237 people who applied as individuals. Groups nominated another 47. Almost 30 groups got involved, including the Black Political Caucus, the Mecklenburg PTA Council, Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Westside Education Think Tank.

Some Big Names

The self-nominees include a few big names in local education.

Ellen McIntyre, dean of UNC Charlotte’s Cato College of Education, wrote that she and others already know how to open doors for disadvantaged students: "I am tired of talk and would like to see very specific actions happen immediately to help children get what they need."

Retired principal Maureen Furr, who led the large and diverse South Mecklenburg High for years, wrote that "I have consistently acted in the interest of ensuring equity for all CMS students and would anticipate that I could bring much to the process."

Cheryl Turner, head of Charlotte's Sugar Creek Charter and a leader in the state’s charter school movement, wrote that she wants to bring her experience working with low-income students of color to create an environment where "quality education is the birthright of every American child."

But most applicants are just parents, educators and community members who say they have a stake in helping CMS get this right. (To view the applications click here and look under Equity Committee documents.)

Why It Matters To Them

Christina Heggins of Matthews describes herself as a millennial mother raising four black children in CMS.

"Educational fairness, opportunity, inclusion and equity are topics that are very important to my family," Heggins wrote, adding that the committee's work meshes with her personal passions.

Otilia Fredette described her qualifications: "I am an educator. I am a USAF veteran. I am Latina. ... I am open-minded. Most importantly I care about the children who will someday be our leaders!"

Christopher Corcoran, a CMS parent who’s president of the Cameron Wood homeowner association in south Charlotte, said he wants to help figure out ways to help disadvantaged groups without sacrificing those who are doing well.

"We need to find creative ways to create schools that serve diverse groups of kids while not scaring away the wealthy families and driving them toward private and charter schools," he wrote.

A Long Ballot

The board will name up to 40 members to the Equity Committee. Each of the nine school board members and the non-voting student adviser can name two, filling half the seats. The board members could pull their nominees from the application list, but they don't have to.

At Tuesday's meeting, they'll fill the remaining seats. McCray said last week there's no way to do electronic scanning, so staff will have to count votes during the meeting.

Simple math says most of the applicants will be rejected. The challenge for the school board will be striking a balance among the varied and sometimes clashing interests of Mecklenburg residents.

And picking the panel is just the start. The school board has yet to spell out the mission for its advisers. Will they just listen, learn and relay information to the community? Make policy recommendations?

Some in the community — and on the school board — are skeptical. CMS had another equity committee, created in the early 2000s as the district dismantled court-ordered desegregation. That board produced several reports, but was disbanded with little clear impact as CMS went through changes in superintendents and school board leadership.

Board member Ruby Jones says the worst outcome of the new equity committee would be if all that enthusiasm translates only to "talk, talk, talk."

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.