On Tuesday night, Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Rhonda Lennon publicly declared that mobile classrooms clustered outside crowded schools should be seen as a critical safety risk.
On Wednesday morning, Superintendent Heath Morrison said there's nothing unsafe about holding classes in mobiles.
From the county's point of view it makes perfect sense. County officials need a way to compare the need for schools, jails, parks and libraries without giving any category privileged status.
But as CMS and Central Piedmont Community College vie for the chance to put up to $300 million in projects on the November ballot, it's easy to see why educators feel hobbled by the process.
For instance: County commissioners often say they want CMS to show how their investments boost student achievement. But when board member Tim Morgan asked whether CMS projects got any points for their intended effect on student performance, the answer was simple: No.
Enhancing economic development boosts a project's rating, but the county uses a model that's geared toward traditional business recruitment. Even though good schools increase property values and create a stronger work force, those aren't the kind of things that show up.
The county ranking awards points based on the "extent to which population has increased in the area in which the project is located." But as Lennon noted, the need for schools is shaped by the number of school-age children, which can be different from overall population trends. "We prioritize based on the needs of children, not adults," Lennon said.
Lennon suggested that declaring mobile classrooms a safety risk might gain some extra points in the building safety category. "Parents perceive these mobiles to be a safety factor," she said. Board member Richard McElrath hinted at a broader definition: "I would put it as a high risk when a child walks out his front door and he's not going to work and he's not going to college."
Why all the confusion and consternation? The county introduced this ranking system in 2011 and used it to set the schedule for finishing CMS projects approved in the 2007 referendum. This is the first time it has been used to decide what goes on a bond ballot.
On Tuesday CMS approved a request for 18 projects totaling almost $294 million (read the 10-year list it was pulled from here). CPCC has made a pitch for $430 million. The county is looking at a total of $300 million in bonds to last the next three years -- or possibly $400 million for four years. The ranking system will not only determine how big a slice of the bond pie each body gets, but it could shake up the CMS priorities, eliminating top-ranked projects from bond consideration while giving the green light to lower ones.
That created plenty of frustration. But there were moments of harmony. Board member Eric Davis said as a taxpayer he appreciates the county's push to rein in debt: "I think any family can comprehend what happens when the credit card gets out of control."
Diorio said CMS isn't going to get the level of spending it wants until the economy rebounds. "They say the recession is over, but we're not seeing it in our revenue growth." And while she didn't give the board the answers they wanted on the ranking system, she urged them to keep working with county officials. "No one has come forward to give me a better way," she said. "I'm happy to entertain suggestions."