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4 commissioners urge CMS to postpone vote
They say closings would hit poor areas hardest. CMS board chair says Tuesday vote can’t wait

By Fred Clasen-Kelly
[email protected]
Posted: Saturday, Nov. 06, 2010

Four Mecklenburg County commissioners, including Chair Jennifer Roberts, said Friday they want school leaders to postpone next week’s vote on plans to close schools and revamp others, citing a new report that suggests low-income neighborhoods will bear the brunt of the impact.

The report, which the county released this week, shows seven of nine school buildings that might be closed are located in “fragile” and “transitioning” neighborhoods in west Charlotte and other urban areas.

Severe cuts in library service and the closure of recreation centers earlier this year also hit those areas especially hard, the report says.

Roberts said she urged the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to delay Tuesday’s vote until December to help commissioners and citizens obtain more information about the plans. The county provides the district roughly $300 million a year, which the school board decides how to spend.

“I continue to feel that this is happening way too fast for the community, the staff, the students and the parents to absorb and to weigh in on some good options,” Roberts wrote in a Oct. 26 e-mail to school board members.

On Friday, school board chair Eric Davis said the district had no plans to postpone the vote.

Davis said the board won’t wait because it pledged to make a decision by Nov. 15 and give administrators enough time to work on next year’s budget and school-assignment plans for students. “We’re in a financial crisis,” he said. “We cannot afford to delay.”

School officials are considering an overhaul as part of budget cuts projected to reach as high as $100 million next year.

CMS’ proposed closings would affect almost 5,000 students, who are mostly black, Hispanic and low-income.

The plan has sparked protests from parents, students and the NAACP, which has accused CMS of discrimination. Anger grew when the board voted to keep some suburban neighborhood schools and magnet schools off the list of potential closures or other changes.

State and local NAACP leaders said they are planning a rally next week in advance of the school board vote.

“All this suffering and all this sacrifice fell on the minorities,” said the Rev. Kojo Nantambu, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP. “It should be shared sacrifice.”

Superintendent Peter Gorman has said the schools were targeted for closing because they have empty classrooms or low student performance. The moves will help the district save teacher jobs, he said.

But Friday, county commissioners Harold Cogdell, Dan Murrey and George Dunlap joined Roberts in saying the district should postpone a decision. Two days earlier, commissioner Vilma Leake complained that the proposed changes are unfair to blacks and the poor.

Commissioners said the school board should review the county’s report before taking a vote.

The report shows that if the school board approves its proposals, more than 50 schools, libraries and recreation centers would close or have reduced hours or service. Slightly more than half are in neighborhoods struggling with poverty, blight, crime and other problems.

Multiple facilities could close in some neighborhoods. For example, the Villa Heights neighborhood north of uptown is home to a library branch that shut down, as well as Villa Heights Elementary, which has been proposed for closure.

County Manager Harry Jones said he is concerned closed schools and other empty public buildings could attract crime. He said the county should look for an alternative use for the buildings.

“It always seems to be my people and poor people suffering,” Leake said. “They are the ones who carry the brunt of these problems in the community.”

But Commissioner Bill James said commissioners are “hypocritical” when they criticize CMS because county commissioners approved deep budget cuts earlier this year. The votes forced library and recreation center closures and pushed CMS to reduce its budget, James said.

“We did the exact same thing in the exact same areas,” he said. “You could say that CMS got the idea from us.”

James, a Republican, contends Democratic commissioners are using the issue as a political ploy to quell complaints. He said the calls for CMS to delay a decision came just before last Tuesday’s election, when Roberts and Cogdell won re-election.

Democrats denied they were motivated by politics.

Commissioner Dan Murrey, who lost his seat in the election, said he asked the school board about delaying a vote because residents constantly raised the issue while he was campaigning.

Murrey said he does not believe school board members are singling out minority areas for cuts, saying some of the schools targeted for closing are old.

He and other commissioners said they want to find a way for city, county and school officials to discuss the potential impact of their decision on neighborhoods, particularly impoverished areas.

“We are working in silos,” Roberts said.