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FUME Lights Fuse 

Group opposes renovating underused schools

Rhonda Lennon isn't interested in wading into a decades-old civil rights battle. She just wants new schools in the suburbs, schools that will help ease the overcrowding that grows worse with every new subdivision built. But last week, she may have inadvertently lit the fuse on a powder keg of racial tension that's been brewing for six long years.

Lennon is the leader of Families United for North Mecklenburg Education (FUME), a group that has been trying for over a year to convince the school board and county commission to build a handful of needed suburban schools.

At two neighborhood meetings attended by 70 people last week, including town leaders and school board and county commission members like Jim Puckett and George Dunlap, Lennon proposed a new clarification of the group's goals. FUME plans to support only the renovation of "occupied school seats." Older schools that aren't filled shouldn't be renovated, but should be merged together, she said.

That makes sense when you consider the suburban schools' ongoing space crunch. The only catch here is that most of those under-filled schools are urban or have student bodies that are largely African-American. Viewed from one angle, Lennon is merely asking for more space for suburban kids who are going to class in trailers and on gym stages. Viewed from another, suburban parents are asking for money to build more largely white schools in the suburbs while calling for a halt to building renovations in the inner city.

"Do you understand the firestorm that they could actually start in this community?" asked County Commissioner Norman Mitchell, who is African-American. "Man, there might not ever be another school bond passed in this community."

Lennon admits that the group, which is conscious of maintaining a positive image in support of the school system as a whole, has struggled with how to put the new policy focus into words.

"We've been working on how to say it," she said. "It's kind of come to the point that we really need to make sure that people hear what we're saying and that's why we're emphasizing the occupied seats."

FUME's proposal causes Mitchell mixed emotions. On one hand, he says, he can see their point. Suburban schools are overcrowded. But Mitchell, who attended Mecklenburg County schools during the segregation era, says he and other black children were bused past white schools and used old cast-off textbooks from the white schools.

Closing under-filled schools to him means some black kids get bused while white kids get neighborhood schools. Plus, he adds, it was a 1997 lawsuit by white suburban parents that ended busing for desegregation and sent African-American kids back to urban schools in the first place.

Mitchell says under-filled schools should stay open and kids should be bused in to fill the empty seats.

"It would be easier to fill 12,000 empty seats than to consolidate those schools and send the kids somewhere else," said Mitchell.

Mitchell was also clear on who should fill empty seats. "White kids," he said. "That's the bottom line."

The presentation Lennon gave last week at the two meetings made it clear that the group wants their children to attend schools in northern Mecklenburg County.

Still, Mitchell said he would be willing to look at FUME's plans, especially a list of which schools its leaders thought should be shut down.

This is the latest tussle in a struggle that's been going on for over a year. FUME activists were behind a push earlier this year to convince the school board to reallocate $30 million of bond money currently planned for use at other schools to suburban building. After that failed in a 7-2 vote, they began pushing the school board and county commission for $74 million in new bond money that doesn't require voter approval to build four new elementary schools and expand two high schools in the suburbs. With county commission elections a month away, it stands a good chance of passing at that body's meeting this week. But the schools would only be a drop in the suburban overcrowding bucket. The school system is growing at a rate of 4,700 students a year, while the money would create 4,200 new seats.

FUME also wants Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to commit to a plan to build enough new seats each year to keep up with current growth and address the current student overflow.

Meanwhile, there are divisions between suburban politicians and some suburban parents over how to solve the problem. North Mecklenburg politicians like school board member Larry Gauvreau and County Commissioner Jim Puckett want to take a more aggressive approach to pressuring the school system to overhaul its construction plans by, essentially, calling for a halt to school construction funding until the system addresses the issue.

The controversy is picking up steam as the turnout at FUME meetings grows. "If we're going to keep encouraging business and keep encouraging people to move here and keep encouraging development, then we need to keep building schools," said Lennon.

The question, of course, is where.

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