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'We Are In Crisis Mode' When CMS Fails Students Of Color, Commissioners Say

Students of color account for more than two-thirds of CMS enrollment.

County commissioners approved a budget Tuesday that forces Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. But all the discussion was about another matter: Failure to help students of color succeed. 

As commissioners began their remote meeting, thousands of protesters rallied outside the Government Center where they’d normally meet. For five nights now, people in Charlotte and across America have raged at the death of George Floyd and the pervasiveness of racism.

That backdrop was clear at Tuesday's meeting, where two African American ministers urged commissioners to withhold money from CMS because so many  children of color are failing in public schools.

"The situation our children find themselves in today warrants that the county manager and the mayor issue another state of emergency to stop what amounts to intellectual and social genocide happening to our children," said the Rev. Jordan Boyd of Rockwell AME Zion Church.

Commissioner Mark Jerrell echoed that sense of urgency.

"We are in crisis mode," he said. "I saw first hand Friday what happens when we undereducate, miseducate and don’t educate our children."

Jerrell spoke in favor of Commissioner Vilma Leake’s motion to demand a plan for CMS to dramatically improve the academic performance for children of color. He was apparently referring to the first night of protests, which included looting and confrontations with police, who tear-gassed demonstrators.

Power Of The Purse

Leake, a former teacher and school board member, had talked about trying to deduct $30 million from the county’s $526 million allotment for CMS to penalize the district for persistently failing schools in black communities. She told the board she opted against including that now, but will bring it back if the district doesn’t deliver a plan.

"My thing is you taking money away from children who you have not educated and can’t read and can’t write," Leake said. "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves in this community for fostering a process that’s not affording us, as people of color, to be contributors to the community."

In CMS, like most school districts in America, black and Hispanic students are far less likely than white and Asian students to pass state reading and math exams. Leake says the county can’t solve problems like homelessness until black students can read and write well enough to compete for good jobs.

School board Chair Elyse Dashew, who was listening to the discussion, agrees the problem is serious and says complex underlying conditions set the stage for school failure. She says the board worked with former Superintendent Clayton Wilcox to create a six-year strategic plan.

"The school board has endorsed the superintendent’s strategic plan, and it is a plan that has real, measurable goals that are focused on what will make students successful in the classroom and beyond," she said after the commissioners' vote.

County commissioners’ Chairman George Dunlap is also a former school board member. He says the district used to have clearer goals and needs to be prodded to return to that.

Commissioner Trevor Fuller agreed, saying "the power of the purse" will be a motivator.

"I’ve always said there are only a few ways you can get people’s attention. And one of those ways to get people’s attention is to mess with their money," he said.

Raise Minimum Wage

Otherwise, the $1.9 billion budget approved without further discussion last night is the one commissioners crafted in straw-poll votes last week. It withholds $11 million from CMS until the district raises its minimum hourly wage to $15 an hour as the county and the city of Charlotte have.

CMS now has about 3,100 employees who make less than that, including cafeteria workers, custodians and teacher assistants. The board has a plan for getting everyone to $15 an hour by the following year. Dashew told Dunlap in a recent letter that moving it up a year would require CMS to cut up to 175 positions.

Dashew said last night that officials will first look for programs to trim and vacant positions to eliminate, but "I don’t see how we can do this without laying off some people too."

The school district is waiting on the state budget to finalize its own spending plans for the coming school year. And of course the need to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic has left many expenses up in the air.