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CMS should scrap unfair closings plan and start anew

By James Ferguson
Special to the Observer
Posted: Saturday, Nov. 06, 2010

The ill-conceived, hastily and clumsily-drawn Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools proposal for closing schools and shifting academic programs must be halted and scrapped before it does even greater damage to the rapidly eroding public trust and confidence in the school board and school administration.

Quite apart from its profound racial implications, the proposal appears to be unfair, unprincipled and unnecessary – unfair in that it places an inexplicable onus on schools with a certain demographic make-up; unprincipled in that no objective criteria have been articulated for the choices of which schools to close and which programs to shift; unnecessary in that the projected savings are at best meager and no showing has been made that this is the only or best way to cut projected costs.

The CMS board is in the best position to recognize its own folly and halt and scrap the plan. But if the board is unwilling to change course, the community must greet the plan with even greater massive resistance than we have seen and must consider available legal options, though costly for both sides.

This newspaper’s editorial last Sunday noted the superficiality of the board’s community forums. It suggests a town hall approach.

Perhaps a town hall led by the mayor could help. But before any serious discussion can take place, the board must give the community full information about its reasoning and its finances and put all budget options on the table, including the use of under-utilized inner city schools to relieve over-crowding in suburban schools. We will all be better served by having an honest community discussion rather than a protracted community fight.

Without question, the board’s proposal has profound and damaging racial, as well as economic, implications. Even though it is not necessary to address these issues to oppose this plan, they are worth noting for future reference.

The board has a long history, dating from the days of segregation, of providing inferior educational opportunities, resources and facilities to African American and economically disadvantaged communities and, dating back to its early desegregation plans, of placing the burden of busing and school closings on the backs of African American children and parents.

Historically, CMS has located new schools and new school construction in white, more affluent communities, contrary to the mandate of school desegregation orders requiring schools to be built at midpoints to serve both black and white communities. More recently, the board has adopted “neighborhood schools” as its number one priority in school assignment, apparently forgetting that “neighborhood schools” was a rallying cry for opponents of school desegregation and oblivious that a return to neighborhood schools means a return to racially and economically segregated schools, a reality we see every day.

Against this background, it is no surprise that the local NAACP president and others would view the board’s proposal as highly racially suspect. The only surprise is that the community reaction was not even stronger.

The board missed an opportunity to have meaningful community input into its concern over projected budget shortfalls. It could have offered the community a chance to talk about educational priorities rather than presenting a predetermined school closing plan that has only limited budget impact but huge community impact.

There is still time to have a real community discussion about our school priorities including the importance of cultural, racial and economic diversity. No court has said that a school board cannot engage the community in a discussion about community values including diversity. The courts have simply said that students cannot be assigned on the basis of race. If we are to move beyond our sorry racial past, we must be willing to have an honest discussion about race, something we have never had as a community.

Over and above pure racial considerations, we must, as a community, require more of our school leaders than a myopic view of the budget for the next year. We must require of them a broad and bold vision for the education of our children for the next decade and the next century. We must insist that they prepare our children to live in a multicultural, multiracial globalized world. We must demand that they see our schools not as neighborhood possessions serving a neighborhood, but as community assets serving the community as a whole.

The current plan must be halted and scrapped. We must start afresh.

James Ferguson is president of the Charlotte law firm Ferguson Stein Chambers Gresham & Sumter. His firm argued for litigants in the 1969 Swann case that desegregated CMS schools using busing and in 1999 against an end to court-ordered desegregation in CMS.