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What Ive Learned

by Peter Gorman

August 5,2006

As I have met community members, parents and CMS staff during my first few weeks on the job, I have been struck by the intensity of feeling and the diversity of opinions about our schools and what needs to be done next to improve them. This district is fortunate – and remarkable – in the intense level of community interest we have.

It’s clear that this community is passionate about education and wants something done, now. The public’s trust in CMS has become frayed, and we need time to put some needed reforms in place. This we will do, using a simple three-question standard to evaluate our actions: Is it good for kids? Is it educationally sound? Is it fiscally responsible?

Despite that fraying of trust, I have faith that our diverse and sometimes fractious community can pull together if individuals are willing to focus on what unites us, rather than on what divides us. And what unites us is a deep commitment to a strong public education system, one that promotes both equity and excellence.

Part of that commitment is making sure that our school facilities are adequate. The simple truth is: right now, they’re not. The needs of this school system are undeniable. We already have more than 20,000 children in mobile classrooms. We expect to gain 4,400 new students in August, bringing the total number of CMS students this year to more than 128,000. To educate them, and educate them well, we need new schools and we need to renovate and expand some existing facilities.

And because we’re a county-wide system, we have the full range of capital issues confronting us. Relieving overcrowding in the suburbs is desperately needed. High school students shouldn’t have to carry 45 pounds of books in their backpacks all day long because their school is too crowded or too sprawling to give them regular access to a locker. Elementary school children shouldn’t have to eat lunch at 10:30 a.m. and the quality of our school facilities shouldn’t reflect a child’s zip code.

Principle – setting aside our individual preferences to meet the larger educational good – demands that we do something now to start meeting the needs of our children. True leadership often requires compromise. We cannot mistake preference for principle. As parents, we don’t want to stand on principle and do nothing, or proudly vote no – only to have to go home and say to our children, “I stood my ground, I voted on principle, but I failed you.”

I believe the recommendation to pursue a bond package next year, using citizen input to develop specific projects and recommendations, is a wise one. We need to balance not falling further behind in construction while building trust and support. We have already seen one bond issue fail. CMS cannot afford another such failure, and it also can’t afford to wait much longer to address the very real, very critical capital issues. The time for us as a community to come together and start building a coalition to support the school bonds package is now, not a year from now.

This community is both broad and diverse – we have banking leaders, faith leaders, community leaders, sports enterprises – the list goes on and on. All of these groups need to help in the effort to get the word out that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are at a critical juncture. If we don’t build some new schools and renovate the ones we have, we are only going to fall farther behind.

This community prides itself on outstanding schools. It was the first city to successfully use busing to end segregation – it was a national model for how it handled such a difficult issue. We have millions of dollars in scholarship money, some of it from the best universities in America – flowing to our graduating seniors each year. This is a good school system, and my goal for it is that it not merely stay good, but get better. To get there, we need capital improvements and a bond issue.

I urge all of the city’s many leaders and many communities to come together and help us make this happen. If we fail this time, we will have failed our children and their future.

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