Mecklenburg commissioner Vilma Leake spoke at a January 2017 school board meeting, urging the board to build new schools for West Charlotte High and Bruns Academy. Ann Doss Helms ahelms@charlotteobserver.com
Mecklenburg commissioner Vilma Leake spoke at a January 2017 school board meeting, urging the board to build new schools for West Charlotte High and Bruns Academy. Ann Doss Helms ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Education

Are your kids’ school buildings in bad shape? Yes. Will CMS get money to fix them? Well ...

March 20, 2017 07:32 PM

If you heard Mecklenburg County commissioners lining up to decry the state of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s school buildings Monday, using terms like “embarrassing” and “a travesty,” you might assume they’re eager to pay for upgrades and new buildings.

But only if you aren’t familiar with local politics.

White suburban Republicans and black urban Democrats united in telling school board members their constituents don’t trust the district enough to pass school bonds this fall. They said uncertainty over everything from boundary changes to leadership could doom the plan for voters to approve a $798 million line of credit to build new schools and renovate old ones.

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“We cannot in good faith support the bond,” said Vilma Leake, a Democrat who represents west Charlotte.

“You have a brewing PR problem,” said Bill James, a Republican who represents the southern suburbs.

All of us should be ashamed at some of the facilities that our children go to school in.

Mecklenburg County commissioners’ Chairman Trevor Fuller

Friction between county officials, who provide money for education, and school board members, who spend it, is as much a part of spring in Charlotte as pollen on windshields. But the rhetoric at Monday’s joint meeting got so heated that Saniye Wilson, who was recently appointed as the school board’s first nonvoting student member, said it brought her to tears.

She chided county commissioners for “yelling at” the adults she has watched work to craft a package of school improvements. “I’m a little blown away by the immaturity I’m seeing today,” said Wilson, a Providence High School senior.

I’m a little blown away by the immaturity I’m seeing today.

Student school board member Saniye Wilson

Monday’s session is an early step toward decisions that will be made this spring and summer regarding the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools operating budget, as well as a likely bond referendum. The county provides almost one-third of the district’s budget – most comes from the state – and must approve any borrowing for construction.

Here are four important questions that were raised (but not answered).

1. Will uncertainty doom school bonds?

The school board is slated to make big decisions about school boundaries in the coming weeks. Clayton Wilcox, who sat in the audience Monday, has been hired to take over from Superintendent Ann Clark on July 1.

And CMS is reviewing its decision to merge neighborhood elementary and middle during the recession, even as the bond includes money to build new combined schools.

Some commissioners said that makes them – and the people who contact them – nervous.

Clark said she’s been talking with Wilcox since the board voted to hire him in December, and she noted that he reports to the board, which is behind the bond plan. Regardless of student assignment decisions, she said, crowded areas will still need new schools and aging buildings will still need renovation.

“The needs of our facilities are real and urgent,” she said.

2. Should officials start horse-trading projects?

The projects that are part of the CMS bond proposal were ranked by staff based on urgency. Leake and residents of west Charlotte have called for new buildings for West Charlotte High and Bruns Academy to be added to the package.

On Monday, school board Vice Chair Elyse Dashew asked if commissioners would be willing to approve a higher total if those two schools, along with a new school in Huntersville, were added. She and Leake were starting to poll the school board when others broke in, noting that would mean jumping the new projects past several others with higher rankings, which would likely alienate additional voters.

Wow! 800 million dollars ...

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, describing the reaction he says he gets to the CMS bond plan

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said increasing the total is a nonstarter for him.

“We’re looking at a billion-dollar bond package. We might as well be looking at a bond package that fails because we got greedy,” he said.

3. Does CMS have a maintenance problem?

Some of the problems that sparked the most vigorous condemnation from county commissioners included broken toilets, ceiling leaks and unkempt grounds.

While aging facilities can be a cause of such problems, grounds keeping and plumbing repairs are part of the routine maintenance budget.

It’s sometimes difficult to fix a toilet.

School board Chair Mary McCray

Commissioners’ Chair Ella Scarborough says she has worked in maintenance and would have been fired if she had let buildings get in the shape of some schools.

“I’m embarrassed when I go to West Charlotte (High) and see how West Charlotte looks,” she said. “That’s maintenance.”

4. Can charter schools do it better?

CMS expects to add about 750 students next year, while it projects growth of almost 2,600 Mecklenburg County charter school students.

Commissioner Jim Puckett noted that charter schools don’t get public money for buildings, which makes them an appealing option for taxpayers as well as the families who choose them.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms