CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - Rep. Scott Stone and Sen. Dan Bishop, both North Carolina legislators who have children in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, tried to set up meetings with principals in their district this week.
The topic: A controversial state mandate to reduce the size of K-3 classrooms. The law, intended to boost young students' reading skills, has triggered mass protests, complaints from school districts across North Carolina and a battle of dueling data over money and unintended consequences.
Stone and Bishop, members of the General Assembly's Republican majority, say their fact-finding was interrupted by an email from Charles Jeter, a former GOP legislative colleague who now works for CMS.
"CMS prefers any such meetings regarding members of the NCGA (and other elected bodies) to be conducted by myself and other members of (Superintendent Clayton) Wilcox's staff as necessary. Our goal here is simply to ensure the consistency in message of the district goals," Jeter's email said.
Jeter offered to meet with Stone in place of the meetings Stone had requested with principals at Polo Ridge, Ballantyne and Providence Spring elementary schools. The three schools are in the south Charlotte area Stone and Bishop represent.
Both legislators said this week that the district's interference makes it harder to speak for Charlotte's schools, which often face different issues than those in rural area many of their colleagues represent.
"It would be nice if we could all talk to each other without chaperones and without barriers," said Bishop.
"I need to be able to have those principals on speed dial," said Stone, who serves on the House K-12 Education Committee. "We need to be advocates and allies. They're trying to make us adversaries."
The relationship between CMS and the state legislature is already complicated. Democrats dominate the school board, while Republicans hold a strong majority in the state. CMS supervises principals and teachers, but the state provides most of the money for their salaries.
Sorting out the value and the cost of class size mandate is, by all accounts, extraordinarily complex. It involves a 2013 bill that has been revised and delayed; complex formulas that link enrollment, dollars and teacher positions; and the myriad ways a statewide template plays out in individual schools.
Critics of the class-size cap call it an unfunded mandate. Supporters say the state has provided money to add teachers, and question whether local districts have used that money effectively.
Jeter, who voted for the stricter limits on K-3 class enrollment when he was a legislator, recently joined the chorus of district officials, PTA leaders, teacher and parents calling for the state to reverse course. They say a strict class-size cap will force elementary schools to hire more K-3 teachers and find classrooms for them.
At a Jan. 4 meeting between the CMS board and about a dozen members of the legislature, Jeter outlined a series of possible tradeoffs that would be required, from eliminating CMS prekindergarten classes to free up county money to packing more students into grades 4 and 5. He said CMS would need an additional $23 million to pay 353 more K-3 teachers and $20 million to add mobile classrooms.
Stone and Bishop, who didn't attend that meeting, say they've been trying to check the CMS calculations and haven't gotten adequate answers. CMS has not released school-by-school tallies of where the new teachers and classrooms would be needed.
The House has already approved a bill that gives districts more flexibility, but the Senate didn't sign on. A report from all school districts tallying how close they are to complying with the new limits is due to the state in late February. Some senators have signaled they could reopen discussion after seeing that.
Bishop said Thursday he spoke with the principal of Elizabeth Lane Elementary, another southern school, before Jeter stepped in to say all communication should be with top CMS administrators. Bishop said he could be "neutralized in advocacy for a solution" if he can't speak with principals.
School board Vice Chair Rhonda Cheek (formerly Lennon), a Republican who has often acted as an intermediary between colleagues and GOP lawmakers, said CMS isn't trying to ban all communication between principals and legislators. Instead, she said, it's designed to ensure that people who know the districtwide issues are included in such meetings.
Stone said he understood Jeter's email as saying a meeting that had been scheduled at Providence Spring later this week was canceled. Jeter said it's still on, but he'll be there to field any questions about the class-size cap.