Crowd Finds Catharsis At CMS Board Meeting
12:00 pm
Wed November 10, 2010

Crowd Finds Catharsis At CMS Board Meeting

The CMS Board voted last night to close 11 school buildings and consolidate or change boundaries for dozens of others. On a 5 to 4 vote the board decided to shut Waddell High School and turn that building over to the students of Smith Language Academy.

The board also voted to close several middle schools on the West side and send those students to half a dozen elementary schools which would become K through 8 schools. Davidson IB will also close. The decisions cap a summer's worth of contentious public meetings. Anger and frustration dominated last night's meeting, too.

As soon as school got out yesterday, people started lining up for the CMS board meeting. By 5:30, more than 200 people were waiting in the lobby.

Moments later, the auditorium was full. By the start of the board meeting, two overflow rooms were full too, about 500 people in all. And emotions ran high right from the start, when board members struck down a motion from Joyce Waddell to delay the school closure decisions until February.

That prompted chants of "No Justice, No Peace!" which forced the board to take a brief recess. In the lobby, chanting continued under the direction of Charlotte NAACP leader Kojo Nantambu. All summer long, racial and class tensions have underpinned the school closing debate, with critics saying the proposals unfairly target predominantly African American and low income schools.

"The whole thing is about civil rights, all of it," said Yvonne Stafford who joined the chanting in the lobby.

Police say one of the protesters was arrested for disorderly conduct. Meanwhile, a marathon public comment period got underway inside the board chambers. For three and a half hours, people came to the microphone. The more pointed the criticism, the more enthusiastic the crowd became.

In the overflow rooms - where there was less pressure for decorum - the meeting seemed sort of cathartic. People laughed and cheered and "mmmhmmed" through every speech.

"I think definitely people are here because they're feeling victimized," said Karen May, a volunteer at one of the schools that was on the list for closure - Irwin Avenue Elementary. "It feels supportive to get in a group situation where people are asking the same questions and still not getting answers."

The audience reserved its harshest criticism for the way the CMS school board has handled the process. The timeline was too rushed, they said. The decisions not well-justified or thought out. And then there was this complaint, summed up by a teacher at Waddell High named Ashley Graham.

"Can we feel the hate in the room tonight, pitting one school against another?" asked Graham.

A series of last minute changes to the school closure proposals left two high schools - EE Waddell and Harding University High - competing against each other to be the school left standing. Whichever the board chose to close would become home to the district's popular language immersion program, which is currently in an outdated building.

So Smith Language Academy parents like Melissa Seuster were compelled to wade into the debate, where they faced accusations of being racist and elitist:

"Yes, it's uncomfortable," said Seuster. "We've been forced to say what we want and what would be best for our children and moving to Waddell would be best for our children."

The CMS school board ultimately agreed, voting to close Waddell and move the Smith Language Academy into that building. It may have been the board's most controversial decision, but some 60 schools will be affected by closures, consolidations and boundary shifts from last night's school board votes. The changes will save the district about $6.5 million a year. But CMS is also expecting a budget shortfall as large as $90 million next year. . . which kind of puts the school closing debate in perspective, says Smith Academy parent Laura Maclean.

"You know when you're facing such the huge budget shortfall I really feel like it's the tip of the iceberg," said Maclean. "I think everbody's boat is getting ready to be rocked."

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