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Ballantyne magnet school gets bumped down priority list

County staff doesn’t think a proposed magnet school in the Ballantyne area is as important as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders do, as evidenced by the 2015-17 capital projects ranking list presented to county commissioners this week.

CMS is proposing a new kindergarten through eighth-grade magnet school in the Ballantyne area that would help alleviate overcrowding and use of mobile units at south Charlotte schools. (Above) Hawk Ridge Elementary School uses several mobile units for classroom overflow.

CMS is proposing a new kindergarten through eighth-grade magnet school in the Ballantyne area that would help alleviate overcrowding and use of mobile units at south Charlotte schools. (Above) Hawk Ridge Elementary School uses several mobile units for classroom overflow.

The proposed science, technology, engineering, arts and math school in Ballantyne would provide overcrowding relief at Ballantyne, Elon Park, Hawk Ridge and Polo Ridge elementary schools and Community House and Jay M. Robinson middle schools and would be the first magnet and kindergarten through eighth-grade school in the area – offering south Charlotte students different programming than already is available. CMS leaders ranked the project 15th among an 18-project, nearly $300 million capital improvement request in hopes the 18 projects would be included in a bond package voters likely will see on the ballot in November, but knowing the projects would have to fight for money against Central Piedmont Community College and county park and recreation requests, among other investment proposals.

The county’s ranking list, presented Tuesday, May 21, to the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, saw three CMS projects jump ahead of the south Charlotte kindergarten through eighth-grade magnet school, with the project moving to the bottom of the CMS list against recommendations from the CMS Board of Education. County staff valued the Statesville Road Elementary School replacement project, Selwyn Elementary School renovation project and Northridge Middle School addition project higher than the Ballantyne school, though all three were ranked lower by CMS.

“We came up with a list that we think is important for our school district,” CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison said. “What we want to see is for the Board of County Commissioners to honor it. We hope that they would work with us and honor our priority list.”

But Morrison said the commissioners and the school district have a difference in measuring area growth. While CMS looks at current school capacity and future development, county commission is focused on voter precincts.

“That doesn’t help us,” Morrison said. “Growth in voter precincts doesn’t tell us where there are kids. In the south Charlotte area, we don’t have additional capacity. We think this (kindergarten through eighth-grade) STEAM school is tremendously needed to address overcrowding… we are very committed to this project.”

A number of CPCC projects, as well as a project at the Latta Plantation Nature Preserve in north Mecklenburg and relocation of the county’s Child Support Enforcement group, also are ranked higher on the county’s list than the Ballantyne school, which is now 29th on the county’s priority ranking.

“It’s frustrating to us that we’re trying to be collaborative with the community college – not in competition,” Morrison said. “What’s been expressed to us is ‘Why can’t we work to have more available funding?’ CMS prioritized the projects and now we have to be held accountable for those decisions.”

Other south Charlotte schools fared better in the county’s ranking. Additions and renovations at Myers Park High School, which CMS ranked eighth on its list, was moved up to second overall by county staff. The project would replace some existing buildings with state-of-of-the-art classrooms, eliminate mobile units and provide renovations to the school’s kitchen and cafeteria.

The Starmount/Oakhurst STEAM magnet project, ranked first by CMS, moved down to fifth on the county’s list but likely will still make the cut. The Starmount school will provide some overcrowding relief to Huntingtowne Farms and Montclaire elementary schools in south Charlotte.

Additions and renovations at East Mecklenburg and South Mecklenburg high schools are ranked 11th and 12th, respectively, on the county’s list, and likely also will be included in the bond package. Both schools will see additions of a new 30-classroom building, while East Mecklenburg High’s project also will include some renovations and elimination of mobile units and South Mecklenburg’s project also will include a new kitchen and cafeteria building and demolition of the campus’s C and D buildings.

But for parents in south Charlotte, seeing the Ballantyne school put on the back burner is concerning. Faye Whipkey, the parent-teacher association president at Jay M. Robinson Middle School, said although Robinson currently does not suffer from overcrowding issues, she would like more magnet options in south Charlotte to provide area students with more program choices.

“It’s disappointing that (the Ballantyne magnet) was moved down the list because having this program in the area would enhance the other schools in the area, as well. And there is a definite need to relieve overcrowding in the middle and elementary schools,” Whipkey said.

Whipkey’s two children, both students at Robinson, also attended McAlpine and Polo Ridge elementary schools. She said though her seventh-grader last attended Polo Ridge two years ago, the school was already suffering from overcrowding issues. She noted elective teachers seemed to suffer the most from the crowding.

“When you put art on a cart or have a traveling music teacher, it really impacts the education kids are getting,” Whipkey said. “But I do believe those teachers are doing the best they can and those subjects are just as important.”

Lynda Willingham, parent-teacher association president at Elon Park Elementary, views the need for another school in Ballantyne as a way to not only “catch up, but to plan correctly for future growth,” she said in an email to South Charlotte Weekly.

Willingham said Elon Park Elementary, only 5 years old, is already at 130 percent capacity and currently uses 11 mobile units, hosting about 24 students each.

She said other factors, like not having available classrooms and teaching staff to start each school year, four lunch periods and limited space for elective classes, all affect students negatively.

“The CMS department that plans and projects school enrollments significantly (underestimated) our growth.  Schools that are only 5 years old, such as Elon Park and Ballantyne (elementary schools) should not be so wildly over capacity already,” Willingham said. “This problem continues up through our middle schools and will hit our high schools.”

Willingham also noted that growth is already happening. With the addition of corporations like MetLife, the growth of the community will continue as new company employees and their families move to the Ballantyne area, she said.

“We are looking forward to CMS addressing our overcrowded schools in south Charlotte and welcome getting back on track with the right number of available classrooms and teachers,” Willingham said.

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