CMS Vote Highlights Deep Divide; Accusations of Racism

Ann Doss Helms and Eric Frazier, Charlotte Observer, Nov. 11, 2010

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In the wake of Tuesday’s bitterly divisive school board meeting, marked by split votes and shouted accusations of racism, there’s one point of agreement: Public confidence in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ leadership hangs in the balance.

Members of the board majority say they made tough choices–the first of many ahead–to close underfilled buildings and underperforming schools in hopes of dealing with looming budget deficits while protecting teachers and bolstering academic success.

“Most of the schools we closed are in the African-American community. That’s factually accurate,” board Chair Eric Davis said Wednesday. “We didn’t close them because they’re in the African-American community.”

But many say the results have raised suspicion, whatever the motives.

“The African-American community is more disturbed by the action of the board last night than I’ve seen them since the lifting of the desegregation order,” said civil rights lawyer James Ferguson, referring to court rulings a decade ago. “The scars run deep, and the board has exacerbated the wounds.”

Said Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx: “This issue exposed some wedges in our community, and the split vote by the school board is evidence that there’s significant repair work to be done.”

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On Wednesday, families from Waddell High, which will close at the end of this school year, called on other affected families to file civil-rights complaints with the U.S. Education Department.

Waddell parents said their children aren’t being treated the same as students in suburban high schools, which have been largely unaffected by the changes. The agency enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination in programs or activities that receive federal money.

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Some community leaders, black and white, give the school board credit for making tough decisions and trying to listen to citizens. But many say CMS leaders must find new ways to connect with minorities, even in the face of competing demands from groups that traditionally have more clout.

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Latino activists also have weighed in. Waddell, for instance, has a large Hispanic population.

“What’s happening here today is genocide,” Maudia Melendez of the Jesus Ministry, an organization that works in Charlotte’s Latino community, said at Wednesday’s Waddell news conference. “All these (public) meetings that we had, they were just a front. They already had their minds made up.”

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