School board gets burned for sneak­ing around

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY THE OB­SERVER ED­I­TO­RIAL BOARD

The Ob­server’s Ann Doss Helms pub­lished a su­perbly re­searched re­port Thurs­day de­tail­ing the story be­hind the Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg Board of Ed­u­ca­tion’s Aug. 28 de­ci­sion to slap four sub­ur­ban towns that were con­sid­er­ing build­ing their own town-run char­ter schools. That CMS move — the “Mu­nic­i­pal Con­cerns Act of 2018” — ef­fec­tively blocked school con­struc­tion in Matthews, Mint Hill, Cor­nelius and Hun­tersville if those towns didn’t ap­prove a 15-year mora­to­rium on build­ing their own char­ter schools.

We thought the school board was reck­less then to fur­ther dam­age an al­ready frag­ile re­la­tion­ship with the sub­urbs, and the towns have re­sponded ex­actly as you might ex­pect — by look­ing more se­ri­ously at a fu­ture with­out CMS. That’s not good for any­one, in­clud­ing chil­dren in those towns.

But Helms’s re­port, which re­lied on more than 450 pages of cor­re­spon­dence, drafts and memos be­tween school board mem­bers and CMS of­fi­cials, car­ries an­other les­son that the school board has long needed to learn: It doesn’t pay to sneak around on the pub­lic you serve.

As Helms re­ports: “Eight of the nine board mem­bers had spent more than two months meet­ing pri­vately to craft a res­o­lu­tion that would spell out con­se­quences for four sub­ur­ban towns if they opted to pur­sue their newly granted power to cre­ate town char­ter schools.” (Sean Strain, who rep­re­sents the south­ern sub­urbs, didn’t par­tic­i­pate, Helms re­ports.) Led by Gen­eral Coun­sel Ge­orge Bat­tle III and CMS official Charles Jeter — a for­mer N.C. rep­re­sen­ta­tive who should know bet­ter — school board mem­bers met in small groups that weren’t re­quired to be pub­lic un­der state law. Those groups cre­ated 12 drafts of the act be­tween June and Au­gust.

The pub­lic, of course, didn’t know what was com­ing un­til Aug. 28, when the school board re­vealed and quickly passed the act. Then it was the board’s turn to be sur­prised. The back­lash to the Mu­nic­i­pal Con­cerns Act was fierce, enough so that board mem­ber Mar­garet Mar­shall sug­gested the board re­treat on its 15-year threat. Even CMS Su­per­in­ten­dent Clay­ton Wil­cox, who had been luke­warm about the act from the start, dis­tanced him­self from his bosses within hours with a star­tling pub­lic state­ment.

All of which could have been avoided if the school board had sim­ply done what pub­lic bod­ies are sup­posed to do — be pub­lic. It’s not un­com­mon for politi- cians to meet in small groups to dis­cuss some is­sues pri­vately, but school board mem­bers should have then held open meet­ings about the act in­stead of im­me­di­ately ram­ming it through. If they had, they prob­a­bly would have learned ear­lier about the back­lash it prompted. Per­haps that would have re­sulted in a re­think­ing of tone and con­tent. Per­haps it would have sparked more mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sions with town lead­ers.

But that’s not how this board has op­er­ated un­der the lead­er­ship of chair Mary McCray, who reg­u­larly has been less than forth­com­ing — and some­times out­right dis­hon­est — with the pub­lic she’s sup­posed to serve. Once again, that’s come back to bite the school board. Once again, it taints the very good work CMS does for the chil­dren and fam­i­lies of Meck­len­burg County. Now, the district faces a frac­tured re­la­tion­ship with its sub­urbs, along with a pub­lic that has one more rea­son not to trust the of­fi­cials elected to lead our schools.

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