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The road to reconciliation between CMS board and Mecklenburg commissioners proves rocky

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and Mecklenburg County commissioners met Monday to talk about overcoming differences.
Ann Doss Helms
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and Mecklenburg County commissioners met Monday to talk about overcoming differences.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and Mecklenburg County commissioners held a three-hour joint meeting Monday. They spent some time reviewing the school board’s new academic goals. But mostly they talked about how — or whether — they can work together.

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said there's been tension between the groups for the entire 15 years she's worked for Mecklenburg County. But during this spring's budget talks, the sparring got so bitter that the two boards ended up in mediation. Commissioners tried to withhold $56 million from CMS and the school board said that body was overstepping its authority.

Monday night school board chair Elyse Dashew urged reconciliation, "because for sure the fight that we went through was such a distraction and it did not serve kids."

Consultant A.J. Crabill opened the session by asking each official how they contributed to the problem. They talked about poor communication and making assumptions about each other.

"I stopped looking at the school board as team members," Commissioner Mark Jerrell said. "I looked at them as opponents at some point throughout this process."
Commissioner Elaine Powell voiced hope that the school board’s new academic goals represent progress.

"We know how bad it is, but how are we going to make it better and what can we all do?" she said. "From what I’ve heard the community wants to know, what are we doing about this?"

But Commissioner Pat Cotham resisted Crabill's repeated attempts to get her to name her contribution to the clash, and questioned the value of the process.

"I think that this is a way to not talk about what we want to talk about or what I want to talk about," she said.

Commissioner Vilma Leake, a former school board member, continued to air grievances.

"I became resentful because of the attitude of the members of the school board about our children," she said. "The resentment was, they didn't like me talking about the Blackness of the school district. And it hurt me to my heart to know you had people sitting on the board only talking about money and never talking about the well-being of the children."

When Crabill tried to get the two groups to agree on ways to move forward together it got rocky. Commissioners’ Chair George Dunlap proposed a ban on negative social media comments about each other.

"And I know it’s difficult. It’s difficult for me, to see somebody put something on Twitter that I disagree with. Because I’m apt to respond. But I’m working on it," Dunlap said, as Crabill chuckled.

Some school board members balked, questioning whether such an agreement would stop them from correcting misstatements about CMS or making factual comments on results. Board member Carol Sawyer suggested that instead they agree not to make comments that focus on "personalities, individuals, leadership, impugning character of individuals or qualifications of individuals."

Dunlap — who questioned Superintendent Earnest Winston’s qualifications during a May budget forum — wasn’t having it.

"I’m not going to agree to that if people aren’t going to agree to not responding to negative comments," he said. "So that one’s out, too. I mean, I see how this game works."

So that got shot down, too. In the end, Crabill summarized their lack of agreement: "People want to have negative comments on social media and people want to impugn each other’s character. I will submit to you, this does not excite me in terms of what is possible for your students."

But Crabill said the meeting was a first step. Both groups will keep trying as they begin working on a 2022 budget in January.

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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.