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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: Lots Of Talk And Little Action Is Too Often The Charlotte Way

Mika Baumeister

To paraphrase Matthew chapter 7, maybe George Dunlap should take the beam out of his own eye before he complains about the speck in Earnest Winston’s.

Dunlap is chairman of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners. The county is threatening to withhold $56 million from the school board until it comes up with better ways to narrow the achievement gap between white and Asian students and Black and Hispanic students.

The other day, Dunlap took a couple of shots at Winston, the CMS superintendent. He took a low blow by saying that Winston used to just drive around former superintendent Peter Gorman; that image of another Black man being just a chauffeur was a cheap shot.

By and large, though, Dunlap’s criticisms were accurate. Winston doesn’t have the leadership experience you’d expect from someone in charge of one of the country’s biggest school systems. And as WFAE's ace school reporter Ann Doss Helms put it, Winston is “warm and sincere, but his messages tend to be short on specifics.”

That’s fair. Here is something else that’s fair: George Dunlap has been a county commissioner for 13 years, overseeing the school board’s budget, among other things. Before that, he spent another 13 years on the school board itself. That’s more than a quarter-century with oversight of one kind or another on the school system. The achievement gaps happened on Dunlap’s watch, too. And he’s had a lot more time to fix them than Winston has.

Dunlap is mad because, he says, the school system doesn’t have a plan for the achievement gaps. But the truth is, when it comes to fixing hard things, plans are about all Charlotte is good at.

Every time something knocks our city sideways, like the Keith Scott shooting, or coming in 50th of 50 cities in upward mobility, we come up with a plan. There’s always a task force or a blue-ribbon commission or some sort of thing. Sometimes one or two small changes come forth. Often nothing happens at all, except that everyone involved gets to put another line on their resumes.

What we constantly lack are the two things necessary to fix almost any intractable problem: Bold ideas and boatloads of money. When it comes to the money, I am several boatloads short. But I do have a crazy idea.

The owners of the big skyscrapers uptown are likely to have a surplus of office space because a lot of people are going to keep working from home after the pandemic.

So, what if we turned some of those empty floors into schools? And not just any schools, but schools solely for the students from the poorest families, the students most in need of a boost?

And what if the key corporate players uptown chucked in the money to pay for equipment and teacher subsidies and whatever else those students might need to bridge the racial achievement gap? What if we made closing that gap our biggest goal as a community, the thing we cared about more than anything else?

I’m sure some of you are right now coming up with a list as long as a CVS receipt as to why that would never work. Fine. Come up with a better idea. Find a way to tap into some real money. Make Charlotte the one place in the country that not only talked about equal opportunity for our kids, but did something about it.

Otherwise, as the basketball sage Allen Iverson said, we’re just talking about practice. Right now it feels like that’s what we’re doing: Just passing the ball around, nobody taking a shot that matters.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.