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What suburban boom? 

The real school bond showdown

Here we go again.

It's school bond season, and reporters who haven't looked at fresh school statistics in 15 years and the politicians who lead them around like dancing bears on a rope are once again pitting "white" suburban political interests against black "inner city" interests.

For once could someone bother to read the damn school membership report and figure out who actually lives and goes to school in this county before we have this idiotic debate?

The conventional wisdom around here is that we're in the middle of a suburban boom driven by growth, and we need to build more schools in the suburbs to accommodate the children of the mostly white middle-class parents who are flocking to the county.

Hence the massive $620.7 million bond package that the school board proposed this week, 67 percent of which would be spent on new school construction.

One problem. There is no boom. Or rather, there was a boom -- like 10 years ago -- and some areas of the suburbs are still booming. But the reality is that the suburban spending the system is proposing now is for the school building it should have done a decade ago, when school leaders were pretending that Huntersville was seeing negative growth.

Schools in the far northern and southern suburbs of the county are bursting at the seams because they've been overcrowded for years, not because we're adding more white suburban students, the ones reporters around here like to pit against the poor black students who supposedly live in the "inner city," wherever that is.

The real boom out there is the one that no one is talking about -- the Hispanic boom. Consider the demographics of the 5,222 additional students Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools added this year. The largest number, a staggering 2,660, or over 50 percent, were Hispanic. Some 27 percent, or 1,397, were African-American and another 12 percent listed themselves as multi-racial.

The percent of new students who were white? Just 3.6 percent, or 189. That's up from the year before, when the system lost a net 404 white students.

What does this mean?

That the majority of the more than 50,000 students we're on track to add to the system in the next decade won't live where we'll be building many of the schools this bond package will pay for. That's OK, as I said, because we're playing catch-up.

When I asked Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman about this in an interview five months ago, he agreed with my assessment of the situation. Gorman says that we first need to catch up in the far-flung suburbs, as he's doing with this bond package. But if we intend to build and expand schools in booming areas where children actually live, which is becoming the standard around here, then the school building boom of the near future won't be in the far-flung 'burbs, but in the middle ring of the county, up and down the east corridor and down South Boulevard. In other words, in the census tracts most densely dominated by Hispanic immigrants.

As I've written repeatedly, Charlotte is also becoming one of the hottest destinations in the country for African-Americans of all income levels. By the end of the last decade, Charlotte had attracted more new African-Americans than all but two other U.S. cities, Atlanta and Dallas, according to a 2004 study by the Brookings Institute. Demographic studies show that the suburbs in the eastern and northeastern parts of Mecklenburg county are the most popular with middle-class African-Americans. Those of lower incomes are flocking to the eastern middle ring and parts of the west side of Charlotte.

So why then are affluent suburban schools in the far north and far south of the county increasingly bursting at the seams? It's not because we're adding more white middle-class children -- as the Charlotte Chamber would probably like us to believe -- but because their parents are bypassing or relocating from the middle ring suburbs they once dominated and packing themselves into smaller and smaller portions of the county, then demanding new schools. They're also sending their kids to private schools in large numbers.

Put simply, then, if suburban voters want the new schools they claim they do, defeating this fall's bond referendum, as they did the last one, is a seriously bad idea, because the window for building new suburban schools is rapidly shrinking.

Hispanic students will account for more than half the projected 50,000-pupil growth in the county's student population in the coming decade. Since they don't have powerful political leaders, or really any at all, it will be interesting to see what happens as middle ring schools burst at the seams.

It's time we started talking about school construction in realistic terms before we blow another billion dollars. Then again, since the powers that be around here usually don't figure out what's going on until 10 years after it happens, we're probably right on track.

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