News: Charlotte Exclusives

The CMS Reform Rewind

Task force report also backs new school-building ideas

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Task Force Report recently released after months of study and work contains many new ideas for reforming the massive Charlotte-Mecklenburg system. But some were not as new as others.

Many of the task force’s recommendations for reforming the school construction process were first proposed in the John Locke Foundation’s September report, Building for the Future: The School Enrollment Boom in North Carolina. Reading the task force report gave me a Yogi Berra moment of “deja vu all over again.”

Specifically, the task force report also recommends a dual approach to the school facilities crisis. First, it calls for broadening the district’s approach to overcrowding and growth by thinking beyond schools built, owned, and operated by CMS. It urges CMS to develop “new schools run by external providers and community partners in non-traditional venues.” As the Locke Foundation report explains, public-private partnerships, satellite campuses, and adaptive reuse of vacant buildings are proven cost-saving strategies that high-growth school districts in California, Florida, and Arizona have been using for years.

Second, the task force report proposes finding new institutional arrangements to handle school planning and construction more effectively and efficiently. It calls for CMS to transfer responsibility for school construction to “a city-county planning agency for public infrastructure.” The Locke Foundation report highlights Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT), which can more efficiently manage the school construction process. This opens the construction process to market competition, lowering construction and renovation costs for the school district.

Upon its release, CMS was unreceptive to these and other recommendations contained in the Locke Foundation report. This was understandable. Building for the Future was released in the heat of the district’s campaign for a $427 million school construction bond, the first installment of a $2 billion building plan. Any praise for the report’s recommendations before the vote would have placed doubt on CMS’s facilities planning process and suggested that less costly alternatives might exist. As it turns out, voters had their own doubts and defeated the bond with a 57 percent no vote.

Immediately after the defeat of the bond, CMS still resisted the use of alternatives to the traditional brick and mortar method of dealing with enrollment growth. Despite proclaiming that everything will be on the table, CMS officials called public-private partnerships and adaptive reuse of vacant buildings “smoke and mirrors.”

But there is evidence that the tide may be turning. A recent Charlotte Observer article reported that CMS hired an architect to determine if buildings in the northern part of the county could be adapted or reused as schools. Plus CMS is finally looking into modular and kit construction possibilities.

Now that the CMS Task Force Report has offered the same recommendations as those in my report for the Locke Foundation, it should be clear to CMS officials and to local leaders there is a well-formed consensus about how to meet the need for more classroom space. This may mean doing things differently than CMS has done them before, which is the very definition of meaningful reform.

Moving forward, we will soon discover if CMS officials will listen to constructive criticism and accept change. If not, Yogi had them pegged too. “There are some people who, if they don’t already know, you can’t tell’em,” he observed. Exactly.