On a recent Thursday night, more than 100 people gathered in a church off Beatties Ford Road for a presentation on a proposed $805 million bond approved by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education (BOE) on April 26. City and CMS leaders were in the crowd, but one group was conspicuously missing: those responsible for placing the bond on the ballot.
The Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners is expected to vote in June on whether the bond will go on the ballot in November, but commissioners on both sides of the aisle have taken a strong stance against that. In April, the Charlotte Observer editorial board wrote in favor of putting off the much-needed money, saying distrust with CMS over the ongoing student assignment debate could hurt the chances of a school bond passing in November.
Those in attendance on Thursday, however, said the situation is too dire to wait any longer. Many of those who attended the meeting live in District 2, where $275 million of the bond money would be allocated if it passed. They say commissioners want to wait until it's not an election year to make it harder to pass the bond, as such bonds are often tougher to pass on years with lower voter turnout.
On the morning after Thursday night's presentation, Creative Loafing spoke with Jarrod Jones and Charlene Mack, regional strategy team members with education advocacy group O.N.E. Charlotte, which organized the event, about what this bond means for school assignment and why it can't be delayed any further.
Creative Loafing: What is O.N.E. Charlotte about and how does it operate compared to traditional organizations like PTA?
Charlene Mack: O.N.E. Charlotte is a civic power organization. It's a group of individuals who are not only frustrated with the status quo, but willing to do something about it through the power of organizing people.
Jarrod Jones: What sets it apart is the understanding of power and how power works in society to make things happen. Historically speaking, even with traditional organizations like the PTA or other organizations like that, without the understanding of power people are just operating with a lot of activity but not a lot of action. O.N.E. Charlotte is derived around action and not just information. We take information and organize people to get informed consent in order to take action as an organized group of people in order to enact power for what we want to see changed. For me, that's the big driver: understanding power and enacting power to create change.
How crucial is the proposed bond to the other issues O.N.E. Charlotte has focused on, like student assignment for example?
Mack: I'm excited that we can increase the number of available seats [with this bond]. So if folks don't want to go to a K-8, in order to increase those options, it would be great for the number of seats to increase in capacity through building schools. That's why we're excited for the BOE's proposed bond, which includes new high school construction and two new elementary schools.
I heard reference to "real choice" at the meeting, what do you mean by that?
Jones: People want school choice because they want to either opt out of their failing neighborhood school because it's a dilapidating building or the schools don't offer the things that they wish their child could get; certain electives, certain career paths, what have you. If you live in a certain neighborhood, especially on the west side, you're either going to go to a PreK-8 [grade school] for ten years until high school, or you're lucky enough to get into a magnet school. Without the know-how to navigate to a magnet, you're pretty much stuck in a neighborhood school that oftentimes gives you limited options and limited exposure.
People in a certain proximity now actually have choices of what you want to specialize in, what kind of kids you want to be around, the teachers you want to be around, what have you. Give everybody a choice in their academic experience versus it being based on where your parents can afford to live, this is all you're going to get.
Are you concerned about the pushback you've been getting on this bond issue?
Jones: My major concern as a District 2 resident and a O.N.E. Charlotte member is that people are playing political games with kids' futures. There's a lot of high school bickering going on at the top, elected-official level sometimes, where it affects the people that actually voted to get them in the position they're in. It goes back to power. You have these people in quote-unquote positions of power who don't listen to what their constituents want and make the decisions for themselves. It makes no sense that you wouldn't lend a listening ear to a bond that's investing heavily into your district, no matter what district you're in, because you may have some problems with how the school system as a whole is going about their process. At the end of the day, the kids are supposed to be the focus of this conversation, not CMS leadership.
Was it upsetting that no county commissioners wanted to show up to hear you out last night?
Jones: Yes, and it's upsetting when you see [county commissioner] Bill James' tweet saying that CMS said there's not going to be a bond in 2016, when clearly Ann Clark said, 'We already voted and submitted the bond to you.' That's what I was talking about with the high school bickering going back and forth that's affecting the kids. We are going to continue to rank at the bottom of the social mobility rankings in 20 years, and nothing is going to change.
County commissioners and others have urged you to wait until 2017 to put the bond on the ballot. Is that a viable option for you?
Jones: No. This year is the presidential election. As we all know, Donald Trump is running, so people are going to turn out to vote, especially in District 2. If we wait another year, the election won't be as big and the turnout won't be as big, so you have that factor.
Also, look at the time that it takes to actually build a school. There's a bond that passed three years ago, on that bond was a project to upfit K-8s, with a concentration on the west side. Those K-8s won't be upfitted until 2020. There's a lot of kids still passing through those K-8s that really are just elementary schools. If we continue to prolong progress and prolong development, you're limiting people's school choice. If we continue to delay it on the ballot, more and more kids will be capped into a K-8 that serves really as an extended elementary school.
It's crucial for it to be this year, and we can't wait. It was real organic last night, someone in the crowd kept saying "We can't wait," and that turned into #WeCantWait. To me, that resonated well, because it got to the urgency of this matter.