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The Mecklenburg County Commission has approved a $2.5 billion bond package for CMS that will go before voters. The board says the money is needed to add classrooms, replace outdated schools, improve learning conditions and keep students safer in violent times.

CMS board decides to start fresh on sweeping review of student assignment

Board members Lenora Shipp (left) and Summer Nunn talk about restarting the CMS comprehensive student assignment review Tuesday.
CMS Facebook screenshot
Board members Lenora Shipp (left) and Summer Nunn talk about restarting the CMS comprehensive student assignment review Tuesday, April 25, 2023.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board agreed Tuesday that it needs more data and a clearer sense of purpose to do the comprehensive review of student assignment that board policy calls for every six years.

The discussion came almost two years after CMS officials started talking about the latest round, and after massive turnover in leadership. Members said among the tasks facing them is defining exactly what they’re reviewing and what they mean by “comprehensive.”

“Me as an individual board member, I don’t have a clear picture still … of what ‘comprehensive’ means. So I feel like we’re kind of running this on a hamster wheel a little bit,” said Vice Chair Stephanie Sneed, one of five new members elected in November.

Student assignment involves redrawing boundaries, revising magnet programs and talking about school segregation and housing patterns — and it’s consistently one of the most controversial things any school board can do. To avoid constant turmoil, the CMS board voted in 2011 to get it all done at once with a big student assignment review every six years.

The last one, which concluded in 2017, took years of planning and phase-in. It generated a complex new measure of socioeconomic status that CMS now uses to measure school diversity.

District officials began talking about the next round in May 2021, as they started looking at construction and renovation needs. The district announced the launch early in 2022, but began breaking off smaller parts to tackle separately, such as 2023 bonds for construction projects and boundaries for new south county schools.

And meanwhile, the board fired Superintendent Earnest Winston, named two interim leaders and saw most of its members replaced in last year’s election.

Lots to look at

On Tuesday board members got a presentation on what’s happened so far. They agreed they need to collect countywide data related to socioeconomic diversity, building use and other factors — and then make it clear exactly what they plan to tackle.

“In my opinion the first thing we need to do is look at the decision-making matrix for student boundaries,” said Melissa Easley.

“I really think that we have to look at bus stops. … We have to look at magnet programming. We have to look at where the assigned magnets are. We have to look at everything,” said Lisa Cline.

“And then on top of that, look at the policy and truly define what comprehensive review may be,” said Dee Rankin.

They’re among the five new members who took office in December. Another new member, Summer Nunn, suggested adding data on who’s opting out of public schools.

“It’s almost like a subscription rate, like how many kids are actually going to the public schools?” she said.

Timing is tricky

Everyone agreed it’s important to get this review right, and that the timing is challenging. There’s the school bond referendum that the board wants to hold in November. A student assignment review might build confidence among voters or erode it.

There’s also a superintendent search wrapping up, and the board may need to wait for the person who takes office this summer to weigh in. There are risks to making big, controversial decisions too fast. But Thelma Byers-Bailey, elected 10 years ago, says she just hopes “that our parents have the patience to wait.”

“Because right now they are very uptight and excited and want a decision. Because if they don’t like what we’re saying, then they’ve got to make some decisions, a lot of them, what am I going to do with my kid?” she said.

The board took no formal votes but agreed to ask for more data and figure out a new timeline.

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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.