A crowd filled the auditorium in CPCC's Overcash Building to hear the 12 candidates running for three at-large seats on the CMS Board debate. There are twelve candidates actively campaigning for three at-large seats on the CMS school board. Wednesday night, they fielded questions from the public at a forum hosted by the non-profit MeckEd and WFAE.
The number of candidates meant their answers had to be short, but they still revealed key differences in what makes a good school system. There's only so much ground you can cover when you have twelve candidates. But Wednesday night's forum did get into some issues that aren't your typical school policy topics.
One student from Ardrey Kell asked about bathroom facilities. Mary McCray, a former president of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Association of Educators and a retired teacher, answered by drawing on some of her own school experiences. "Right now I'd say it's crappy," said McCray as the crowd laughed. But that did introduce a serious discussion about how the district allots resources.
Ken Nelson, a business analyst and pre-school parent, said it does so unfairly by spending more money on struggling schools. "We don't need to be sending three times as much money over to the west side when private schools are doing the same job for a whole lot less than we're spending per pupil over on the west side," said Nelson. "It's not an issue of resources. It's an issue of priorities."
Hans Plotseneder, a teacher at West Meck High School, couldn't see it more differently. "We do have in CMS different priorities. We all know when Myers Park wants something, they get it, and we all know other schools are second class," said Plotseneder.
A lot's at stake in this election. Three of the nine school board seats are up for grabs. The new board will hire a superintendent and determine the district's policies over the next four years.
Wednesday night, the place was packed. The audience selected topics on their cellphones and tablets. They chose "assessing student learning" and "the achievement gap." When people were given a chance to ask questions, they quickly lined up.
Current district six school board member Tim Morgan is running for one of the three at-large seats. He said initiatives like weighted student staffing which sends more teachers to struggling schools has helped CMS narrow the achievement gap. "Do we want to continue our forward progress or do we want to go backwards?" he asked. "A lot of people have said I wouldn't vote for this or I wouldn't vote for that. But I haven't heard many people offer alternatives for how to keep us moving forward."
Keith Hurley, a banker and CMS parent, is on board with some of the district's initiatives, but not with evaluating teachers using student test scores. "Pay for performance is Pete forgot the people. It's terrible," said Hurley. He said that push has led to over-testing in schools. Many of the candidates agreed, but said there still needs to be a way to evaluate teachers and assess student learning.
Talk of tying test scores to teacher pay prompted loud protests by teachers in the spring. A year ago, the district's decision to close eleven schools, nearly all of them in largely African-American neighborhoods, upset hundreds of parents and students. So it wasn't surprising that several candidates stressed the importance of making decisions as a community.
Ericka Ellis-Stewart was one of the parents who spoke up about the school closures last fall. "I think we've had a challenge in Charlotte around our ability to speak openly and honestly around race and socio-economics. And we really need to have that conversation at the community level as well as in our schools," said Ellis-Stewart.
Elyse Dashew co-founded the group MeckFuture to push for more money for education to prevent teacher layoffs this year. "We definitely face some huge challenges at CMS right now. We can only meet those challenges by working together and including all voices in the process," said Dashew.
Darrin Rankin, a CMS parent, noted that first challenge will be picking a new superintendent. "As a community we have to decide what's important to us. What do we want CMS to look like going forward?" asked Rankin. Voters will have a big part in deciding that November 8.