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Charlotte-Mecklenburg panel drops controversial boundary option, works on public poll

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members say they won’t create diversity through massive rezoning

CMS plans a public poll in January on importance of diversity vs. schools close to home

School board will invite officials from city, county and towns to weigh in

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The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board isn’t interested in a massive realignment of school boundaries to balance race and income in schools, members said Thursday.

A draft of student assignment principles discussed at the last two meetings listed three options, including one that called for using boundaries to “provide diversity that aligns with the diversity of the school system as a whole.” That option specifically called for keeping school poverty levels from getting higher than 10 percent above the district average, which is currently about 58 percent.

That proposal helped fuel school board campaign messages and parent email chains warning that the board is preparing to break up successful neighborhood schools and bus children for diversity.

“Our school board is considering implementing forced busing,” state Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Cornelius, wrote in an email urging people to vote for Jeremy Stephenson, who didn’t win a seat. “It is imperative that we keep our children from being forced involuntarily to travel hours every day getting to and from school.”

Tom Tate, who chairs the board’s policy committee, said he wrote up the boundary option “in my effort to think about everything possible,” based on board discussions earlier this year. At Thursday’s committee meeting, attended by seven of nine board members, he got no dissent when he said no one wants to pursue that path.

Instead, the panel is moving toward a still-nebulous approach that uses neighborhood and magnet schools to promote academic success and reduce concentrations of poverty. The board hopes to have guiding principles approved in March and use the rest of 2016 to create a plan for 2017-18. The self-imposed deadline is part of the current policy calling for a major review every six years.

Members also said Thursday they want to create a team of elected officials from Mecklenburg County, the city of Charlotte and six suburban towns to work together to promote education, starting by weighing in on student assignment principles.

“It’s about demonstrating a commitment to partnership and teamwork,” said board member Eric Davis. He said he, school board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Charlotte city council member Vi Lyles came up with the plan after an October forum on race, poverty and public education in Mecklenburg County. That event, intended to rally public officials, was poorly attended, apparently because it clashed with a county commissioners’ meeting and municipal campaigns.

“I think it would be good for the community to see that we all want to come together on this,” Tate said.

The CMS panel also worked on wording for a poll of parents and students, to be administered in January, seeking information about family experiences with magnet schools and whether diversity, schools close to home or teaching methods are their highest priority.

However, members acknowledged that after months of talks they have yet to define diversity as it relates to the student assignment plan.

Race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status are cited in the draft, but with no mention of what kind of balance might be considered acceptable. Some members talked about including sexual orientation and culture, though board member Ruby Jones questioned whether those are relevant in student assignment.

Ellis-Stewart suggested that the group focus on “predictive links,” such as racial gaps and the prevalence of academic failure at high-poverty schools.

The committee scheduled two December meetings to keep working on the guiding principles. “I think it’s really important to move forward,” Tate said.