By Sean Strain
With voting opening in the Mecklenburg County municipal and school board elections this week, I have attended several candidate forums where the law authorizing four towns in Mecklenburg County to open and operate charters was a significant topic of discussion and debate. As with any issue, there are positions that can be substantiated by facts, others that are elements of interpretation and conjecture, some that are misunderstandings and misrepresentations, and unfortunately some that are just untruths.
The CMS Vision represents the need to serve every student such that they may “reach their full potential,” an objective consistent with every parent’s expectation of the services from the education provider of their choice. With the diversity of needs across the county, and the diversity of K-12 educational service providers today – public, private and parochial – if CMS takes the position that “your kids will be fine” (as has been stated by some sitting BOE members) then parents and their municipal leaders alike will look for options to best serve the needs of their youth. One sitting at-large board member recently said in a south Charlotte meeting “I cannot prioritize the needs of [your children] ahead of those of east and west Charlotte,” despite the prioritized CMS Capital Needs Assessment identifying this very community as the top CMS priority for capital investment.
The municipal interest in obtaining the authority to introduce greater choice for its residents is born from just this position and concern. Rather than doubling down on the commitment consistent with its core beliefs, “Each student is uniquely capable and deserves an engaging, relevant and challenging educational experience,” the CMS response to HB514 was to accuse municipal leaders of racist intentions and tell the public that proposed legislation would reassign students, reduce options and choice, increase municipal taxation and segregate schools. This last point ignores the fact that two of the most diverse public schools in the county are Matthews community schools: David W. Butler High School and Matthews Charter Academy (a public charter school). Despite CMS leadership statements that HB514 “really means” that all of these impacts were possible, if not likely, the truth has been born out in what has (and has not) happened – i.e., none of these have occurred – and that almost every one of these results is controlled entirely by the board of education rather than the state or municipal government. Suggesting that the municipal boards would have to raise taxes seems to defy logic, as there’s not a single dime of municipal tax money that was used to open and operate the nearly 200 current public charter schools in the state.
Following passage of the legislation, CMS then issued a statement that if these four towns did not commit their future boards to refuse use of this newly granted authority to provide for their residents, CMS would deprioritize future capital funding for these municipalities’ students. Your students. This threatening statement puts a very fine point on the disagreement as municipal leaders sought to expand parent choice and the CMS leadership response sought to punish municipal and suburban kids, falls flat as it carries no weight without specific policy change (which has not happened), is not actually possible since no board can create policy binding future boards, and the joint committee created under this same resolution has not been used to advance agreement on capital needs and priorities. Led by Elyse Dashew, CMS board vice-chair, the Municipal Education Advisory Committee’s work began in December 2018, and its potential to build trust and confidence between and among CMS and municipal representatives was substantial. Unfortunately the highest priority item – agreement on capital needs prioritization – has not been brought forward and addressed in the 10 months since its inception.
Running a very large urban-suburban school district is challenging. Partnering is essential to success. Partnership is a two-way street. Faulting municipal boards that are asking that CMS partners and delivers true to its vision and core beliefs – for its municipal residents, particularly its youth – is flawed at best. Candidates running for municipal mayoral positions, councils/commissions and the school board would be well-served to understand the truth behind these positions and statements – and stick to them. Voters should hold candidates to account for misrepresenting these facts, or in the case of some incumbents specifically voting against our communities’ youth and opportunities for them.
Sean Strain is the sitting District 6 representative on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, representing Pineville, Ballantyne/Providence, Matthews and Mint Hill. Elected in 2017, he is two years into his first four-year term and has consistently called for “Equity for All,” serving every student by meeting them where they are and providing them every opportunity to realize their full potential. He spoke neither in favor or opposition to HB514, as it “does not change my mission to provide the best education possible for every child.”
Nonpartisan BOE elections take place every two years, with three at-large representatives on the ballot this year (Nov. 5) and the district seats next on the ballot in 2021.