Protests interrupt CMS board meeting; police clear room

Oct. 27, 2010

The debate around controversial reorganization plans for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools again turned emotional Tuesday night, when chanting audience members interrupted the school board meeting and police were called to empty the chamber.

Board Chair Eric Davis called for a recess shortly after 8 p.m. – two hours into the meeting – after attendees began drowning out board members with the growing chant “No justice, no peace.”

Many were there to protest the proposed closing of some urban schools with largely African-American student bodies.

“We will not take this any longer. These are our children,” one protester shouted over the chanting.

Another yelled: “We are not talking about the westside, we are talking about all sides. We will not lose our children. We will not sit down.”

After nearly 10 minutes, police told the crowd of as many as 70 to vacate the chamber. All complied peacefully, with some breaking into the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” as they marched out.

The recess lasted about 30 minutes, after which the meeting was called back into session and the crowd was allowed to return. The board then finished reviewing the 39-page reorganization proposal and adjourned.

Officials said later no one was arrested at the meeting. That stood in contrast with the Oct. 12 public hearing, during which two people were arrested, among them the head of the local NAACP, Kojo Nantambu.

The protests Tuesday night began just after school board member Richard McElrath asked fellow members if the opinions of parents held any sway in the sweeping list of proposed changes.

Dozens of schools will be affected, including some that will be closed, consolidated or relocated.

McElrath’s question echoed the sentiment many parents have raised in recent weeks.

“I feel nobody is listening,” parent Zanita Robinson told the Observer afterward. “They’ll take something off the list and put something else on for reasons we don’t understand. And they’ll not take the time to explain it. It’s frustrating.”

Added protester Blanche Penn: “It’s like they’re playing some kind of game with us, like we’re all just pieces of a puzzle.”

Superintendent Peter Gorman and his staff say the changes for the 2011-12 school year are part of a district plan to improve academics and save money in anticipation of a massive budget deficit next year.

The board intends to make a final decision on the proposals Nov. 9, which some parents have suggested is too soon. However, district officials say the changes need to be in place in time for the January school-application period.

District staff has suggested closing eight of CMS’s 176 schools. They account for about 4,000 students, mostly black, Hispanic and low-income. The schools were tagged, officials said, because they have empty classrooms and/or academic failings. And with budget cuts looming, officials maintain it’s better to sacrifice buildings than teachers.

However, parents have raised questions about whether schools in urban areas with largely minority student bodies have been unfairly targeted. Some accuse the board of racism and favoritism toward the suburbs.

The local NAACP has voiced its concerns and has called for a full audit of CMS finances by Jan. 14.

Board chair Davis acknowledged the frustration of parents and now says he regrets not allowing all speakers to voice their opinions on the proposals at the Oct. 12 hearing.

Davis said he recessed the meeting Tuesday night because the board couldn’t conduct its business.

“This is painful and disruptive,” Davis said. “None of us want to do this, but we have to face a reality of a funding shortfall.”

Board member Trent Merchant also acknowledged the board could have done a better job of communicating with the public on the proposals.

He specifically cited the case of a proposed closing at Harding, which was first announced Monday.

“I feel the frustration in the room. … That frustration is felt all over the community,” Merchant said. “People all over are asking what are we doing, why are we doing it?”

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