Charlotte Observer file photo by David T. Foster III

By Ann Doss Helms

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board now has a road map and a guide for student assignment changes, after voting Tuesday to hire a consultant and to approve guiding principles.

The board also chose a superintendent search firm and voted to ask Mecklenburg County commissioners to put $805 million in school bonds on the November ballot. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will send the county a formal request, which would have to be approved by June.

The meeting took place at Butler High in Matthews, where a small but vocal group of neighborhood school advocates protested the selection of Alves Educational Consultants Group to work on student assignment. They came bearing signs such as “No biased consultants” and “I’m leaving to go to my charter school” and shouted at the board when Chair Mary McCray cut off organizer Boe Clark’s comments on bonds.

The board presented a mostly united front on the issues, with debate and disagreement remaining polite.

The student assignment votes set the board on the final and most difficult stretch of a review it launched last year. The goal is to tweak the current plan, which combines neighborhood schools and magnets, in ways that give more students a better shot at academic success, break up concentrations of poverty, build on support for successful schools and help Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools compete with charter and private schools.

Alves, a Massachusetts firm with expertise in choice-based plans that encourage socioeconomic diversity, won a $135,000 contract to help CMS with that work. The company advised Wake County Schools on its student assignment review in 2012.

Rhonda Lennon cast the only vote against the contract, saying she doesn’t think the group’s history and expertise matches CMS’ needs.

“When you look up Mr. Alves, he is called ‘the godfather of controlled choice.’ That concerns me deeply,” she said, to whoops and applause from the audience.

But Clark, her staff and other board members said the consultants will bring expertise and guidance but take orders from the board.

“That’s why we are here, to give oversight,” said board member Ruby Jones. “They can bring fresh eyes.”

The group will be guided by a list of principles that won 8-0 approval Tuesday, with Ericka Ellis-Stewart abstaining. Those principles leave in place assignments based on where students live, coupled with options to choose magnets and other specialized schools. They also call for using “socioeconomic status” – a phrase the board and its consultants will have to define – in some boundary decisions and priorities for magnet admissions.

The Alves contract runs through December. Changes could take effect in 2017-18, unless the board decides to delay or phase them in.

CMS leaders pitched the bond referendum as a way to address the need for more schools and better options. If approved by county commissioners and Mecklenburg voters, it would authorize borrowing for 10 new schools, 18 renovations and expansions and a new administrative building.

That’s a big “if,” though, as County Manager Dena Diorio and several commissioners have said they plan to wait until 2017 to put bonds for schools and other county projects on the ballot.

Clark said the needs are urgent and a bond package would help support a choice-based assignment plan by providing about 4,000 new magnet seats. “I think it’s vital,” she said.

Lennon cast the only no vote on the bond request, saying the timing is wrong. At the rate county officials are doling out the $293 million authorized in 2013, there are about four years of spending left.

Also Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to hire McPherson Jacobson to work on a superintendent search. The Omaha-based firm will get a $34,500 fee and about $17,000 in expenses.

The board interviewed four search firms earlier this month. Thomas Jacobson said his firm is a strong advocate of public transparency, including a chance to meet finalists for the job. “We believe public business should be done in public,” he said.

Clark’s contract expires in June 2017.