News: Charlotte Exclusives

Reviewing the Reviewers

CMS review panel lacks real diversity

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools finally has its review panel of private citizens led by former mayor Harvey Gantt. From the looks of it, none of the group’s $500,000 budget was spent looking beyond the Chamber of Commerce’s speed dial for members.

The Charlotte Observer duly noted where panel members live, their lines of work, and their party affiliations before going on to obsess over the group possibly meeting in private at some point. But the prospect of a private discussion by a private group is far less salient than what the public record tells us about the review committee.

Insular is not too strong a word for a group that if you threw a rope around the Center City Partners and the Foundation for the Carolinas you’d corral many of our CMS reviewers. More interesting still is the fact that five of the 16 members — Krista Tillman, Mac Everett, Frank Emory, Astrid Chirinos, and Catherine Bessant — number among CMS at-large school board member and Chamber exec Kit Cramer’s featured supporters. The possible implications of that overlap will soon become clear.

But as for the basic make-up of the panel, the most glaring omission seems to be any input from the school system’s teachers. No active duty CMS teachers, not even retired ones. Why? It could not be that Gantt and co-chair Bessant wanted to avoid members with connections to the school system they will evaluate or to local government, which the panel will implicitly review.

After all, the panel includes Bernard Johnson, two-time Char-Meck school board selection to serve on the county planning commission. Johnson’s SB&J Enterprises is also listed as an official disadvantaged business enterprise at the city-owned Charlotte Douglas airport, where it operates food services including World Travelers Marketplace and KFC Express.

Nor is Johnson alone among panel members with close professional ties to local government. Take Patricia Rodgers, CEO of Rodgers Builders. Her firm is a principal in the $41 million ImaginOn uptown children’s center. In 2003, a Rodgers joint venture received what was then a $25 million contract from the county to build the combo library and theater with the grand opening slated for spring 2005. Since then $10 million in cost overruns has helped to delay ImaginOn’s opening until this fall amid questions about how the project went off-budget. Gantt’s own firm, Gantt Huberman Architects, also worked on ImaginOn.

In 2001, Rodgers Builders renovated the offices of the Foundation for the Carolinas on South Tryon. Rodgers is also part of the $25 million whitewater park planned for the Catawba River. The city of Charlotte has already slated $2 million in loans for the project and Mecklenburg County is guaranteeing up to $7 million in loans from Wachovia and Bessant’s Bank of America.

On the board of the U.S. National Whitewater Center you’ll find Carlos Evans, Wachovia exec and another CMS review panel member. Evans also served with Bessant on the Chamber’s Marketing Team tasked with helping the Charlotte Bobcats sell their luxury boxes at the new uptown arena the city built for the team.

And panel member Frank Emory, a Charlotte attorney and former member of the state’s transportation board, led the Chamber’s light rail pep rally, the Second Annual Transit Summit in November. Emory helped steer Mecklenburg toward light rail and away from roads during his tenure on the Trans board in the late 90s.

Emory also served on Gov. Mike Easley’s tax loophole closing commission. Its April 2001 report recommended the state consider scavenging for more revenue by hitting DirecTV, fertilizer and seeds, and Social Security benefits. No, really.

Emory’s views on taxes get us back to the Kit Cramer bloc on the panel. Last year in her capacity as vice president of the Chamber’s education group, Cramer held a series of closed-door meetings featuring presentations from Bank of America experts on debt capacity and financing options. This led to speculation that revenue from a real estate transfer tax, raising perhaps as much as $70 million a year, could be used to secure school-construction bonds worth hundreds of millions. In other words, the banker solution for everything: You take out a loan; we’ll take a transaction fee.

So there you have it, your grand outsider look at CMS. Just a repeat of what the Chamber did last year, along with a dollop of Foundation for the Carolinas facilitation to paper-over any dissent?

I’m more than willing to be proven wrong, but it certainly appears this group is poised to recommend additional taxes — either in the form of real estate transfer taxes or impact fees — as the only “reasonable” solution to CMS’ needs. This could be presented to the public as the implicit “price” of continuing the current assignment plan, one that guarantees students a seat at a neighborhood school.

Perhaps a strong voice will emerge on the panel for truly innovative solutions to chronic CMS management problems, solutions like locally-run charter schools or chopping CMS into multiple, digestible “pie slice” districts, or actually empowering school principals. It should be clear, however, that championing new ideas could be a lonely fight on this clubby panel.

No, the specifics are still to come, but the general outline seems set in stone. Tax. Spend. Excuse.