An emotional changing of the guard, plus some good news for CMS
This story originally appeared in WFAE Education Reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly newsletter. Sign up here to receive it first in your inbox.
Departing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board member Rhonda Cheek walked into Tuesday’s meeting dabbing at tears, and that set the tone for much of the evening. Five board members with a combined 35 years of service cycled off the board, and five newcomers were sworn in.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an emotional meeting. Most of the current members got teary as they talked about all they’ve been through together, coming to feel like a team despite their occasional clashes. New members thanked family and friends, and spoke with awe of following in the steps of local and national leaders who have fought for better lives for children.
It was clear they take seriously the responsibility they’ve assumed for the education of more than 140,000 students, the livelihoods of more than 18,000 adults, the spending of about $2 billion in taxpayer money each year and the overall well-being of the greater Charlotte region.
Despite behind-the-scenes jockeying for leadership, the new group united to reelect Elyse Dashew as chair, with newcomer Stephanie Sneed as vice chair. I saw a few social media comments saying Dashew’s reelection proved that the new board is settling for the status quo, but I’m not sure that’s the case.
The chair is not a CEO, with power to hire and fire colleagues. She doesn’t get extra votes. The chair’s role is to understand how the system works and help all nine members coalesce to get things done. There’s no doubt that the current nine members will have a different chemistry, and how that plays out remains to be seen.
They’re being put to the test right away, as they hash out who should be the next interim superintendent and prepare to search for a permanent one. And they spent three hours Monday morning with Mecklenburg County commissioners, who control local education spending — $558 million this year — and have often been critical of the school board’s work. The nine-member board of commissioners now includes three former CMS board members, with newly-elected Arthur Griffin joining George Dunlap and Vilma Leake.
Some good news in CMS that may have sneaked up on you
This time last year, I wasn’t sure whether I was covering education or the police beat. Reports of guns and threats of violence at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools popped up at least weekly. Shortly before everyone went home for winter break, a student fired a gun on the grounds at West Charlotte High, marking the 23rd gun found on school grounds since the start of that school year.
Have you noticed anything different this fall?
When I first asked CMS for a count, saying I planned to do a story right before winter break this year, there had been only one gun so far this school year. A student walked through a West Meck scanner with an unloaded gun late last week, bumping it to two. Still, what a welcome change of pace.
There was never a clear explanation for last year’s surge, and it’s impossible to say why students are not bringing guns nearly as often now. CMS has made some obvious changes, such as installing the Evolv scanners at all middle, high and K-8 schools and launching the Say Something anonymous tip program. I talked to school board Chair Elyse Dashew and Chief Operations Officer Brian Schultz about what has changed over the past year and what’s to come.
Of course, we’ve all spoken nervously about jinxing things. And no one is foolish enough to check the potential for school violence off the worry list. But it’s worth noting when things change for the better, especially when it frees students and staff to focus on education instead of guns.
North Carolina’s school calendar controversy continues
Last week Union County and Iredell-Statesville Schools joined several other Charlotte-area districts in deciding they’re not going to obey North Carolina’s school calendar law by waiting until late August to bring students back. School boards across the state have long protested the mandate, which is supported by the tourism industry. Educators say they want the flexibility to start earlier to synchronize K-12 calendars with community colleges, given the growing number of high school students taking community college classes. And they want to be able to give first-semester exams before winter break.
Also last week, a special House committee on the future of public education said it will recommend that the General Assembly give districts calendar flexibility. That’s not a huge surprise; the House has voted for flexibility before but been blocked by the Senate. But with a growing number of districts in open rebellion, it feels like the Senate is going to have to yield or crack down on school calendar scofflaws. And it’s worth noting that the school boards defying the law are, like the General Assembly, majority Republican.
Thinking about education issues in 2023
The Public School Forum of North Carolina will hold its annual Eggs & Issues breakfast meeting in Raleigh on Jan. 31. The nonpartisan group will present its list of top issues for the year, as the General Assembly convenes for its biennial long session.