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Decisions, Decisions

And local politicians keep putting them off

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Unless their constituents figure out the truth, it will go down as one of the great Kumbayah moments of all time in Mecklenburg County.

Last week, politicians took turns at the podium, celebrating the new $123 million school construction package that Democrats and Republicans lovingly agreed on. For a group of people who agree on nothing where schools are concerned, it appeared to be a historic moment.

"This is a great thing because the focus has been put back on children," said Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools Chief Operating Officer Maurice Green.

But the truth was a bitter one. To win the support of Republicans, Democrats agreed to strip more than $20 million in guaranteed funding for renovations at two largely African-American and minority schools, a fact they no doubt hope their constituents won't catch on to. But the Democrats extracted a price first. If Democrats and urban leaders couldn't get funding for their largely minority schools, then the Republicans and suburbanites would have to strip guaranteed funding for two of their suburban elementaries.

In the end, both sides stripped $50 million out of the package essentially out of spite because they couldn't agree on whose schools should get it.

"We kept whittling it, whittling it, and one day we said, 'By golly, there it is,'" said Mecklenburg County Commission Chairman Parks Helms.

It drove Republicans and suburban leaders nuts that Harding High School, a historic black school that is 77 percent African-American, and Idlewild Elementary School, where 80 percent of the students are black and Hispanic, were slated to get full funding for their renovation projects while new suburban high schools only got planning money. And they had a point.

Suburban schools, particularly suburban high schools, are bursting at the seams while Harding and Idlewild aren't exactly overflowing. With more than 15,000 mostly suburban students going to class in trailers and on auditorium stages and 5,000 additional students system wide arriving each year at their neighborhood schools, suburban schools ranked higher than Idlewild and Harding on the list of critical projects -- as even school system officials admitted -- and the system wouldn't have included Idlewild and Harding in its suggested bond package based on need.

It further steamed the suburban crowd that members of a committee that decided which schools got what threw the two schools onto the list at the last moment, pushing them ahead of other projects, in part to get African-American and Democratic support for the plan. (The far-flung suburbs tend to favor Republicans in elections, the inner suburbs, Democrats.)

After a lawsuit by suburban parents stopped race-based busing in 1998, African-American children were forced to return in large numbers to the schools in their neighborhoods. Since then, suburban schools have had to wait while the county renovated desperately decrepit west side and urban schools. Now suburbanites say it's their turn.

To Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, a Republican from the county's northern suburbs, backing even two "urban" schools in a package largely filled with suburban ones was unacceptable. For him, it's really not about race or even geography, he says. It's about a political process that is bleeding taxpayers dry without building new seats to handle the explosive growth in the school system, particularly in the county's fastest growing areas.

For years, he says, the school system would rank schools by priority for construction or renovation, then leap-frog other school projects, usually urban ones, ahead of higher-ranked projects that would have created new seats. This was done for political reasons, he said, to please various political factions.

"That had to stop," said Puckett, who thinks the school system should build according to project priority, not politics. "This is the only way to make it stop."

But making it stop meant tearing $20 million in renovation money from the hands of largely minority children and their parents, regardless of how their schools got on the list. And it meant pain for the suburbs, too.

In the original $172 million plan, which county commissioners voted down five to three, four suburban schools, the new Belmeade Road, Bradley, Hucks Road and Providence Road West area elementaries, were fully funded and would have been open for business by 2008.

In the new compromise plan, only Belmeade and Bradley elementaries get full funding and open by 2008. The other two elementaries get preconstruction money only, which is usually used for design, and promises that a vague new school funding method will cover the rest of the costs.

That's key, because the school system is infamous for designing schools and then waiting years to ask voters for the bond money to actually build them. Republicans did get two additional, highly ranked suburban school projects added onto the project list as part of the compromise -- preconstruction money for renovations at South Mecklenburg High School and the construction of Long Creek Elementary.

But those schools, as well as the New Providence Road West and New Hucks Road elementaries and Idlewild and Harding, will now supposedly be paid for using a new lease back law for school construction that is at best untested. So in reality, the Republicans and suburban politicians traded four guaranteed elementaries for two guaranteed elementaries, the ability to knock full-funding for Harding and Idlewild off the list, and pithy design funds for two more suburban schools they added to the list.

Over the weekend -- and off the record -- Republicans called the compromise a Republican victory, and it was, when you consider that two weeks ago everyone was saying no to the same offer. But overall, what politicians on both sides did was simply agree to design a lot of schools and make the controversial decisions on which ones would actually be funded later.

Mecklenburg County School Board Member Larry Gauvreau, who represents the county's northern suburbs, was the only suburban hold-out on the plan, which he called a sham. As Gauvreau pointed out, the most desperate overcrowding is in the suburban high schools. The compromise plan, like the original, still only includes design money for two suburban high schools -- the new Matthews/Mint Hill area high school and the new Bailey Road high school -- with no construction money and no construction date attached. That means it will be at least 2010 and probably later before the new suburban high schools open their doors, and then only if they make it through a 2007 bond package or some other likely contentious funding scheme.

So far, black politicians are largely mum on the whole thing. African-American County Commissioners Norman Mitchell and Wilhelmenia Rembert said they wouldn't vote for the compromise because they promised voters last year that they wouldn't support an interim plan if the bonds 2005 bond package failed. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the $427 million bond package last fall.

That means there's likely to be a battle royale over schools coming soon, as politicians are eventually forced to make the tough decisions they're still putting off.

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