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CMS kicks off marathon meetings

Forums look at big picture first, then will get specific. The goal: Lock in changes for 2011-12 by November.

By Ann Doss Helms

[email protected]

Posted: Saturday, Jun. 19, 2010

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board has hashed out plans for nine intensive days of brainstorming about student assignment, with the first public forum Monday.

People who attend any of the four forums will be assigned to small groups to discuss the broad values that should guide a revamp of boundaries, magnets, busing and other issues connected with where kids go to school.

The big-picture talks are designed to help staff understand community values, says board Chair Eric Davis. That discussion will start by examining and probably revising the “guiding principles” the board approved after a 2005 review. Only two of the current nine members were on the board then.

In July and August, staff will start presenting specific proposals based on themes that emerge this month.

The first meeting marathon includes three special board meetings, in which members and staff will talk about how to cut costs while protecting academics.

By November, the board hopes to lock in changes for 2011-12, including closings or consolidations of under-filled schools.

All meetings are open to the public, which means die-hard participants could spend 18 hours in the first round of special sessions. Although it’s not part of the formal review, the board will also hold a public hearing and discussion Tuesday on a revised policy guiding educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. That meeting will start at 8 p.m., after almost seven hours of special meetings.

But questions linger about how many families will be eager to dive into education talks so soon after the last school bell.

“Essentially, what we’re going to do is have a constant stream of meetings during the one week of June that probably is the most popular vacation week for Mecklenburg County residents,” said board member Trent Merchant. Merchant said he remains worried that a well-intentioned effort could backfire, leaving people alienated and upset.

Board member Kaye McGarry introduced the subject in her June newsletter by saying, “Is this process scary??? You decide.” She raises questions about the time and other board members’ willingness to listen. And she approvingly quotes an unnamed constituent as saying: “This is not going to help CMS to regain community trust!”

But board member Rhonda Lennon says the review is a smart business practice and honors campaign promises that she and others made to take a fresh look at student assignment. Starting now lets the board make its decisions before families must apply for 2011-12 assignments, she said.

“I hope everybody gets past ‘This isn’t what I wanted’ and gets to ‘This is what I was put on the board for,'” Lennon said.

Some PTAs and groups such as the Charlotte Chamber and Mecklenburg Citizens for Public Education are already mobilizing people to get involved in the effort.

Often, lower-income schools and neighborhoods are less likely to get involved in education debates. Davis said the question of how to engage the whole community remains.

LaTarzja Henry, CMS’s public information director, said all principals have been asked to make automated phone calls and send e-mails to families notifying them of the review. She said her staff is also working with groups such as the Latin American Coalition and Helping Empower Local People to get the word out. Spanish translators will be available at all public forums, she said.

Public forums

Participants will be expected to discuss and report on big goals of student assignment.