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CMS Shrinks High School Bond Projects But Doesn't Say Why

Rendering of the new southwest high school, which will be built next to Palisades Park Elementary.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is scaling back on the size of new high schools it promised to build during the 2017 bond campaign, and district officials aren't explaining the change.

Three new high schools were a big part of the CMS pitch for voters to approve a record $922 million in school bonds.

Two are entirely new schools in south and southwest Charlotte. The third will replace the cluster of aging buildings on the West Charlotte High campus. All three were described as $110 million projects with 125 classrooms each.

But written updates, which haven’t been discussed at school board meetings, have been listing two of those projects as 100-classroom buildings for months. That’s 20% smaller than the original plans, and CMS hasn’t said why it’s making the change.

Credit CMS
Plans for the West Charlotte High replacement school.

Reports on the southwest school, which will be built on CMS land next to Palisades Park Elementary, and the West Charlotte replacement school say the 100-classroom buildings will accommodate 2,500 students — the same number given for 125-classroom buildings. West Charlotte currently has fewer than 1,400 students, so it's unclear how CMS plans to fill the new building.

WFAE asked three CMS officials for an explanation. Spokeswoman Renee McCoy forwarded August bond updates. Carol Stamper, deputy superintendent over operations, referred questions to Chief of Staff LaTarzja Henry. Henry said she wasn’t ready to answer yet, but plans to have information on bond changes ready next week.

Individual bond projects aren’t spelled out on the ballot, so legally CMS can make any changes it wants once the voters give their approval.

But politically, that’s considered a bad idea. Broken promises can undermine future bond campaigns. That’s why years ago CMS created a Bond Oversight Committee. It’s made up of district staff and volunteers who keep an eye on the projects.

Two people who attended the January oversight committee meeting say some members raised questions about the high school changes.

The new south high school, which would pull students from Ardrey Kell, South Meck and Myers Park, has been pushed back a year, with the opening now scheduled for August 2024.

Over the past summer, CMS leaders targeted land next to Olde Providence Elementary as the likely site for that school. But Superintendent Earnest Winston put that on hold after residents objected. Sean Strain, the school board member who represents that area, says the district is still looking at a handful of possible sites. State law allows public boards to discuss real-estate purchases in closed meetings, so nothing has been disclosed about where that new school will be built.

CMS already owns the Olde Providence land, and buying 50 acres or so for a full-size high school in the Ballantyne area, which some residents have lobbied for, wouldn't be cheap. CMS hasn't said where it will get the money if the district decides to buy land. 

As of Wednesday, the south high school project isn't even listed on the CMS construction update site, and the size of that building remains unclear.

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.