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Wednesday, 04 October 2017 07:29

Local reactions mixed on CMS bond proposal

Written by  Cassie Fambro

Almost a billion dollars of money is on the line, and that’s just half of what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) officials say they need in capital funding according to their 10-year assessment.

But while the sizable ($922 million) bond pot is on the table pending voter approval in November, many in the northern end of Mecklenburg County would like to see reconsideration for how the portions are divided.

As it stands, there is a triage system where the school system ranks schools on the basis of need using a formulated rubric. That rubric includes grading criteria such as the facility condition index, capacity and life cycle. Officials take scores on each of those items and rank schools in CMS from greatest need to lowest need on the capital funding report. The proposed bond measure would provide renovation or replacement to the schools listed above the $922 million cutoff on the capital needs assessment list.

Of those listed projects, only the K-8 North Language Immersion Academy will be located in north Mecklenburg, proposed at the old J.M. Alexander site on Hambright Road in Huntersville. Just below the bond cutoff (not included in the current proposed list of projects to benefit from 2017 bond package funding) is Huntersville Elementary, constructed in 1954 and slated for renovations in the capital needs assessment list.

The 2015-2016 Capacity Utilization Chart lists Huntersville Elementary at 105 percent staff building utilization (SBU), which is a metric on the rubric using the number of classrooms and teachers in relation to the number of students. In comparison, the second item on the list of proposed bond-funding projects is a new elementary to relieve overcrowding at Windsor Park, Idlewild and Winterfield elementaries in Charlotte, where the SBU numbers are 149 percent, 143 percent and 132 percent, respectively.

Other overcrowded schools serving students in the northern portion of Mecklenburg are Blythe Elementary, at 124 percent; J.V. Washam Elementary, 118 percent; Hough High School, 121 percent; and Mallard Creek High, 127 percent. Past the bond cutoff, a new high school to alleviate overcrowding at Hough and Mallard Creek is on the list, at an estimated $98 million. A new elementary school is also on the list to relieve Blythe, costing an estimated $26 million.

Huntersville Commissioner Melinda Bales says she understands that overcrowding is a concern for many CMS schools, but believes this bond measure does not reflect the growth in north Mecklenburg County.

“Huntersville’s projected growth is 84,000 by 2030,” said Bales, citing the anticipated expansion in a town where current census data indicates a population near 55,000 people. “There’s nothing on the horizon for our families, as far as school growth.”

Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy echoed Bales’ sentiment with an added critique.

“The rubric that CMS uses for determining capital needs is fundamentally flawed,” he said. Gilroy specifically took issue with the classroom utilization, saying the number of students in a school should play more of a role than simply dividing the number of teachers in a school by classrooms.

But some north Mecklenburg citizens view the bond issue differently. At this week’s Cornelius Town Board meeting, Cornelius resident Pam Jones expressed support for the bond measure.

“It makes me sad, it also makes me angry, that this issue — as with many issues these days — seems to have devolved into an ‘us versus them’ situation,” Jones said, referring to Charlotte schools. “We should care about children, regardless of their zip code or race.”

Cornelius Commissioner Thurman Ross was the only commissioner to oppose a town resolution against the bonds. “We did get our share in the last bond package,” he said. He also spoke out against the notion that it might take 10 years to get more money for north Mecklenburg County. “It’s up to the county commission, they could put it back on in two or three years,” Ross said. And first-year CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, during a Parent-Teacher Association meeting he attended late last month at the new J.M. Alexander Middle School, also urged north Mecklenburg teachers and parents to consider a bigger picture.

“I understand everyone is not happy with all of the proposed projects,” Wilcox said, “but I would encourage you to take a look at what’s happened over time.”

In the last 17 years, bonds have allocated $370 million for school projects in north Mecklenburg’s District 1, including building the new J.M. Alexander facility. But District 1 CMS Board Representative Rhonda Lennon still opposes the current bond measure for growth reasons as well, pointing to trailers as a poor solution.

“We have to have trailers, and I don’t call them learning cottages or anything cute like that, they’re trailers,” she said. Lennon was also critical of the CMS decision to bypass the established rubric to benefit a few schools. “Huntersville Elementary was jumped over,” she said.

Three projects —  West Charlotte High School, Lansdowne Elementary School and Bruns Academy — were bumped up on the priority list. Mary McCray, an at-large CMS board member, explained that exceptions were made due to extenuating circumstances not measured by the rubric, pointing to West Charlotte as a particularly dire example.

“West Charlotte … was getting patched up and patched up,” she said, “but as Dr. Wilcox talked about, when you have teachers working in a section of a building and they don’t even have a bathroom in that building, and they’ve gotta leave their building and go to another building to use the bathroom, that’s inhumane in my opinion, and I was a classroom teacher.”

McCray added that Bruns Academy had a sewage issue that leaked onto hall floors. “That school really needs a better facility,” she said.

Still, for north Mecklenburg, the fear that rapid growth will leave students in crowded conditions, and potentially more and more trailers, is prominent.

“Every student deserves to be in a brick and mortar classroom, not a trailer,” Bales said.

The bond measure is on the Nov. 7 ballot. If it is approved, CMS and county officials have said that no new county taxes will be required to offset the future bond-backed expenditures.

“I am hopeful that people will not just think of themselves in this, but the entire county,” Wilcox said. “I think this is about providing hope, trying to inspire young people to be the best they can be. It’s saying to our kids that we are willing to invest in their futures.”

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