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

CMS Asks: Will Schools Of The Future Be Taller Or Smaller?

School construction
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Construction is underway on a K-8 language school on Nations Ford Road.

Leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are trying to get the community thinking about the future of school construction, even as they seek more money for the projects already approved.

The district is about to review all of its standards for new schools – the first time that’s been done since 2005. On Wednesday, CMS consultant Dennis LaCaria told elected officials from Mecklenburg County and its seven municipalities that the district is looking at such questions as: How much should CMS rely on mobile classrooms? What’s the right size for elementary, middle and high schools?

And a big one: Can CMS keep building sprawling high schools with athletic fields and parking lots?

"As land gets scarcer and more expensive, what does a more urban high school look like, and can we call it a comprehensive high school if it’s on three floors of the Duke Energy building?" LaCaria said.

"I was helping some friends in New York City build an eight-story elementary school in Midtown with a basketball court on the roof," LaCaria added. "That's their world. We're not there yet, but we're getting there."

Current Challenges

Wednesday's meeting of the Municipal Education Advisory Committee followed a Tuesday night school board meeting devoted to the challenges of delivering on 2017 bond promises. LaCaria said at both meetings that CMS will need more than the $922 million approved by voters to deliver those 29 construction and renovation projects.

He said construction costs have escalated faster than the county's projections called for when the bond total was set. Several elected officials said Wednesday that they're seeing similar increases in costs of their projects.

People at Tuesday's school board meeting protested plans to cut the size of the West Charlotte High replacement school.

The school board voted Tuesday to reduce the size of three new high schools from 125 classrooms to 100 classrooms each. At that meeting, school board member Sean Strain asked repeatedly -- and unsuccessfully -- for detailed information about the apparent lack of money to buy land for one of those schools. The south Charlotte school would relieve crowding at Ardrey Kell, South Meck and Myers Park high schools, each of which now has more than 3,000 students, and some residents want CMS to buy land in the expensive Ballantyne area.

When Mecklenburg County Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell asked about the land costs Wednesday, school board member Rhonda Cheek said that "it was just mistakenly underestimated, badly, in the bond. We're way off on the amount of money to purchase land in the south Charlotte area."

Cheek said the school board expects to ask the county for additional money to buy land and to carry out construction promises, though neither she nor LaCaria gave amounts.

Planning Together

Associate Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell said Wednesday that CMS has hired a consultantto help the district project 10 years of enrollment trends. For years municipal officials have complained that CMS has been unprepared for growth.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said she wants the district’s planning to mesh with the city’s 2040 vision plan – including its efforts to get people out of cars and onto public transit.

"I certainly look at light rail as a secure way to move older students around the city," Lyles said. "I would hope that the campus of UNC Charlotte, with the two high schools out there, that there wouldn’t have to be a bus to go out there, that you’d take the train as a 10th grader."

The meeting with elected officials is the start of a yearlong public conversation about 2017 bond projects and the future of CMS construction. Four public forums are scheduled for March, all from 6 to 7:30 p.m.:

  • March 9 at Northwest School of the Arts, 1415 Beatties Ford Rd.
  • March 11 at Providence High, 1800 Pineville-Matthews Rd.
  • March 16 at East Mecklenburg High, 6800 Monroe Rd.
  • March 18 at Mallard Creek High, 3824 Johnston Oehler Rd.

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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.