CMS Forums Tap Into Fears, Social Tensions

Oct 8, 2010

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools held the first of six forums last night on potential school closings and boundary changes. District staff has recommended closing twelve schools and shifting the boundaries of many others to save money. Last night's forum focused on schools in north Mecklenburg County, including the proposal to close Davidson IB and move its International Baccalaureate program to Alexander Middle School. WFAE's Lisa Miller attended last night's forum and is in the studio to talk about the dynamics at that meeting: MARK: Lisa, what kinds of concerns were you hearing from Davidson IB parents and students about this proposal? LISA: Davidson IB is one of schools the board is looking at closing because it's housed in what the district calls its most dilapidated building and it's expensive to operate. But many parents said the building wasn't getting in the way of kids learning. And the argument I heard over and over from parents and students alike was that kids wouldn't learn as well at Alexander. One Davidson seventh grader Angelina LaPan summed it up this way. LaPAN: Kids from Alexander will not understand the IB program and they will get us kids from Davidson IB Middle School behind because their education level is lower than Davidson IB. And we will be set back. MARK: Well, how does an argument like that go over with people outside of Davidson IB? LISA: First thing, what they do at these forums is have break-out sessions. There were a few parents and even a teacher from Alexander Middle who showed up last night. They spoke up in the small groups and that made for some of the more intriguing exchanges. Lori Columbus was one of the parents who talked. She has a daughter who went through Alexander Middle COLUMBUS: Everybody keeps saying Alexander is a poorly performing school and you should help Alexander first. But there's no money to help Alexander if all this money is going into supporting your crumbling building and your very small group of kids. LISA: So, you could see a few red faces when she said that, but everything remained, calm.that is calm, but definitely tense. MARK: Yeah, it sounds like a pretty emotional issue. How did CMS board members react to these comments? LISA: They didn't go over so well with a few of them I spoke to afterward. Richard McElrath said he was disappointed with what he heard. He said if the International Baccalaureate program was doing its job, which is to emphasize a world view, students would be willing to operate outside their comfort zone. MCELRATH: I would think if there was one thing they would've learned by being in that program, if it's a really truly great program, it would've instilled in each one of those children that they could be successful wherever they go. LISA: McElrath also said in some ways it reminds him of the debate around desegregation--only in this case, it's the fear of sending your kids to a school where not everyone is high-performing. Now, Rhonda Lennon who represents the area including Davidson said her mind's made up. She says Davidson IB may be great for the 250 students who go there, but moving the magnet to Alexander would allow more kids to get into the program. And then she says there's the cost side of it that's hard to justify. LENNON: There's the view from the family within the school and then there's really the view of everybody outside that can't get in or on the waiting or is an elementary school student at Cornelius that's getting $4200 a student going, "What about my kid? Why can't I have $8500?" LISA: That's the per student cost at Davidson IB... $8500. While that by no means is the highest cost, it is up there. There were people who came to the meeting to speak against changes at other schools. Several E.E Waddell students and parents showed up to oppose the proposed closing of their school. But they'll have to a wait couple more weeks for the forum specifically focused on that. MARK: And briefly, Lisa, do we know how much closing these twelve schools would save the district? LISA: Not exactly. The district estimates closing your average middle school would save about $600,000. Elementary schools a bit less, high schools a bit more. Now, that doesn't seem like much, but board chair Eric Davis said last night closing schools would help save teaching jobs next year. And next year's budget is expected to be even tighter. Staff expects to present the exact cost-savings tied to these changes at Monday's work session. The forums will continue through the end of October and the board expects to make a decision on November 9th. MR: WFAE's Lisa Miller. Thanks, Lisa. LM: Thank you, Mark.