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Huge crowd turns out in hopes of swaying CMS plans for south schools before it's too late

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board spent almost three and a half hours Tuesday night hearing from dozens of parents and students on plans for new boundaries and magnet programs in schools across southern Mecklenburg County.

They showed up bearing signs and wearing school T-shirts, hoping to influence the board before a scheduled June 6 vote. Just over 100 people signed up for two-minute speaking slots.

The quest to redraw attendance zones to accommodate a new high school under construction on Community House Road began more than a year ago. That new school will provide relief to some of North Carolina’s biggest schools in 2024, but it also requires massive changes in popular schools with highly engaged families.

Fifteen drafts later, the plans now also include a southern middle school that CMS hopes to open in 2025. Superintendent Crystal Hill’s recommended plan would bring changes in attendance zones, feeder patterns and/or magnet programs at 27 schools, with roughly 3,500 students potentially facing new assignments.

The process illustrated how difficult it is to balance goals like assigning students to attend schools close to home while also encouraging greater diversity — especially in a city where neighborhoods often break down along racial and socioeconomic lines. About the only thing all speakers had in common was strong feelings about changes to their schools.

Kristi Longley-Dovel came to speak for a coalition of families from several schools who think the latest draft is a good one.

“We support the superintendent’s recommendation as is,” she said. “Thank you for balancing (socioeconomic status) across the schools, and for the major improvements at the middle school level.”

But many speakers aired complaints and suggested revisions.

“The latest draft doesn’t make sense in numerous ways,” said Olde Providence Elementary parent Shawn Bowers Buxton. “When you look at the latest map, delivered late last night, it’s hard to see the haphazard lines that hopscotch over major roads like Rea and Colony as anything other than a gerrymandered map.”

CMS board policy says school assignments should strive for balance in socioeconomic status, let students attend schools close to home, avoid leaving buildings overcrowded or underfilled and, as much as possible, allow students who attend elementary or middle school together to stay together at the next level.

But it’s almost impossible to accomplish all of those things at once. Changes that met one goal often left people complaining about others.

“Please vote on June 6 to uphold CMS’ espoused values of diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Caroline Bailey, a 2022 graduate of South Mecklenburg High.

“Our top priority is home-to-school distance,” said Aaron Putnam, who voiced concern about a long commute to Crestdale Middle School when J.M Alexander is closer.

Each revision satisfied some families while blindsiding others. Several families living in the Polo Ridge Elementary zone complained that their neighborhoods hadn’t been included until last week, when Hill’s recommendation was published. It was reposted with slight revisions the night before the hearing.

“The 11th-hour inclusion of my community is unfair,” said Joanna Feltovich, a CMS parent who said she has taken part in meetings about the plans for more than a year.

Hill says this is her final recommendation. But the board could still make its own changes.

“I think we may need to look at some alternate, and we can get into the details of that a little bit later,” said Board Member Jennifer De La Jara, with the rest of her words drowned out by applause and whoops.

Some have even suggested taking more time to tweak the map. But several speakers said it’s time now to make a final decision and let students and families get on with their lives.

Find material about the whole process and check for any updates here.

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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.