CMS Board Shrinks New High Schools, Says They'll Still Have 4,100 Empty Seats

Feb 26, 2020

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted Tuesday to scale back the size of three new high schools that are part of a 2017 bond package. And CMS staff says there will still be a surplus of more than 4,000 high school seats when those new schools open.

Deputy Superintendent Carol Stamper tried to set the tone at the school board meeting by invoking the heady time when 73% of Mecklenburg County voters said yes to $922 million in bonds for CMS.

"It was a hoo-rah day in November of 2017 when our voters and our community supported the largest bond that CMS has ever had," Stamper said.

But now, with that money falling short of the promises made, skepticism pervaded the room —  not only in the audience, where people held signs saying “Bait and switch,” but even from some board members.

"Now we want to talk about being open and transparent with our public," board member Ruby Jones said. "You haven’t been. You promised one thing and now you think you’re going to go back on it? I think it is an abomination."

The meeting was supposed to be a time for CMS to clear the air about 2017 bond projects and start laying groundwork for future bonds. But it often resembled a series of math problems — even though, as CMS consultant Dennis LaCaria put it, "right now, tonight, we have more questions than we have answers."

For instance: How much more money will CMS need to deliver the 29 projects it promised? Too early to say, according to LaCaria.

Audience members protest plans to change the size of the new West Charlotte High from 125 classrooms to 100.
Credit ANN DOSS HELMS / WFAE

Here’s another one: How can you reduce the number of classrooms in a high school by 20% without reducing the capacity? That one had an answer. When CMS officials were putting the bond package together, they said three new high school buildings would have 125 classrooms each – and they figured on an average of 20 students per classroom, or 2,500 students.

But Tuesday staff told the board that 25 students per classroom is more realistic for high school. Thus, 100-classroom schools would still have room for 2,500 students. That’s the same number of classrooms as in other relatively new CMS high schools, such as Rocky River, Hough and Mallard Creek.

Not everyone was buying it. The three high schools in question are a new school in the southwestern Palisades area, a new school in a yet-to-be-determined south Charlotte location and a replacement building for the aging West Charlotte High.

Some West Charlotte supporters in the audience carried signs saying they wanted the 125 classrooms they were promised. West Charlotte is a mostly black high school, and the dispute has taken on racial overtones. 

"Black people helped bring that bond home," Jones said. "And now you’re going to try to sell us the okey-doke."

Assistant Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell weighed in with some math of her own: West Charlotte has fewer than 1,400 students now. In five years it’s expected to have almost 1,700. So 2,500 seats should be more than enough.

In fact, Craven-Howell said all three of the new schools will still have hundreds of seats to spare in five years. And when you add Waddell into the mix – it’s currently a K-8 magnet school but scheduled for conversion to a magnet high school – Board Chair Elyse Dashew came to this tally: 4,100 empty seats. Staff agreed.

"That gives me a comfort level that we have room to grow," Dashew said.

But board member Sean Strain says population growth in south Charlotte and the crowding at Ardrey Kell High means the new south high school can fill 125 classrooms quickly. And he had his own math problem: How could CMS say each of the three high schools would cost $110 million when two of them don’t require buying land? He didn’t get a clear answer, and said CMS needs to come clean about having lowballed land costs for the south high school.

In the end, seven of nine board members voted to set the size of the high schools at 100 classrooms, with Strain and Jones opposing. Member Rhonda Cheek said the smaller schools are the best use of public money.

"I have to answer to taxpayers and I have to pay taxes, and we have to be very prudent with our tax dollars," Cheek said.

And while Dashew acknowledged that CMS "goofed on the communications, as far as the 125 versus 100, big time," said West Charlotte high is getting a state of the art school with plenty of room. "It’s like Hough but bigger cafeteria, bigger gym, bigger auditorium," she said.

Next up: CMS will make its case to a panel of local elected officials Wednesday and hold a series of community meetings in March.