CHARLOTTE – City and school board leaders want to work together, but the way they go about it is like awkward teenagers unsure about how to ask each other out on a date.
Let me, the love doctor, show them the path toward a healthy relationship rooted in communication.
Why am I playing matchmaker?
Well, Charlotte City Council welcomed public comments April 20 for a rezoning project that could transform 454 acres in Ballantyne from a business park into more of a village environment. Elyse Dashew, who chairs the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, urged the council to keep what’s best for the schools in mind during the public hearing.
Dashew didn’t specifically say she was concerned about how housing would affect overcrowded schools in the Ballantyne area, but that’s the impression I got from her comments. And when city council members asked her how they could better work with CMS, she really didn’t give them a good answer.
Ed Driggs, who represents the Ballantyne area on the city council, has also expressed a desire on multiple occasions to work closely with the school board to make better decisions for the community. I’m certain a school leader told him in one instance, “we already communicate.”
That may very well be true, but I don’t think the people that are doing the communicating are not sharing their information with elected leaders. So, the desire for greater collaboration continues to linger in board meetings.
From my experience reporting in three counties, school districts complain about local governments approving housing projects, local governments complain about schools being overcrowded and county leaders complain about how much money it costs to build or renovate schools. It’s all connected.
So my recommendation would be for the towns, city, county and school district to work together to create an online dashboard that updates the community in real time on school construction and development. The dashboard should show where each school stands in terms of enrollment and building capacity, as well as the number of housing units in every development project proposed (at the time of application) and approved for each high school cluster.
Such a dashboard would probably be expensive given the sheer data involved, but it would remove a lot of guesswork and needless discussion from zoning and school construction issues. It would also make for more data-driven decisions.
Let me offer a more affordable set of suggestions.
Town, city and county leaders need a few things from CMS.
First, they need a copy of the district’s annual budget and any approved capital planning documents. Specifically, they need a prioritized list and timeline of where schools will be built and renovated over the next five or 10 years.
Second, they need to receive a schedule from CMS that details important dates in capital planning. It would be helpful for town, city and county leaders to know when CMS staff plans to give any presentations related to construction or renovation, as well as classroom capacity, to the school board. They also need to know dates for key decisions. This gives elected leaders an idea of school board meetings to attend or the time frame in which they need to reach out to school board members with feedback.
Third, local leaders need to get minutes or key points from these meetings.
CMS can appoint someone on staff who is responsible for maintaining this or school board members representing districts could step up. Or staff could send relevant documents and minutes while a school board member explains to their counterparts on town, city and county boards some of the nuance behind the key decisions.
In turn, CMS could use key data from the towns, city and county.
I think it would be helpful if CMS received updates from the towns, city and county on the number of housing units proposed in every new rezoning application. They should also receive updates on this stat as rezoning projects are approved.
It would probably be helpful if school board members knew the timetables for each rezoning decision affecting projects within their district.
Union County Public Schools has a facility committee that discusses school construction in depth. In recent months, the committee has focused a meeting on a specific high school cluster, say Porter Ridge High School. A district employee will break down the building capacity at each school within that cluster and the number of housing units for each proposed and approved development nearby. This process creates a very sharp school board.
All of the information I’ve recommended the towns, city, county and school board share is readily available, but I understand how there are so many hours in a day. I’m just not sure calling for another meeting or creating another intergovernmental relations committee is going to be as productive.