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Should the county own CMS properties?

Charlotte’s airport isn’t the only property that’s part of a turf war in North Carolina. A bill introduced in the N.C. Senate this month could wrest control of school buildings and sites from the school districts that currently own them.

SB 236 would give commissioners in all 100 N.C. counties the option to hold the titles to school properties. That means county commissions, not school boards, would have control over planning, construction and maintenance.

The bill is sponsored by Senate Republicans, including Jeff Tarte of Mecklenburg, but school ownership is not necessarily a partisan issue. The N.C. Association of County Commissioners, which includes Democratic-majority boards, is backing the bill. There’s bipartisan support for it on Mecklenburg’s board.

Commissions feel that because they are responsible for issuing bonds, they also should own the schools paid for with bond money, as happens with libraries, parks and jails. Some commissioners also are irked by a peculiarity in N.C. law that allows school systems to sell or lease properties they are no longer using. So if Mecklenburg wants a school or building that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is vacating, the county must buy back the property it already bought.

But in Mecklenburg County, at least, SB 236 could result in inefficiencies with school maintenance and contracts, and more importantly, it would introduce an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and politics to the already delicate process of deciding which communities get new and renovated schools.

Currently, CMS has authority over where schools are built, along with their size and design. The school system and school board develop construction and renovation plans that they submit to commissioners, who work with CMS to determine the bond package to present to Mecklenburg voters. The county can tell CMS that its bond request is too large.

The structure works because it provides checks and balances between the government bodies while taking advantage of CMS’s expertise regarding capital needs, changing communities and school assignment plans.

SB 236 would give the county control over everything, including where schools are built, which could further politicize the planning process by adding more elected officials who are tempted to look out for their districts instead of the school system’s best overall interests. Commissioners also would have the final say over design and construction, although they have comparatively little expertise.

The county also would be responsible for 20 million more square feet of CMS property, according to Superintendent Heath Morrison. Morrison worries that instead of a principal going directly to janitorial staff to make a significant fix, the principal would have to call CMS building services, which would call the county, which would call the privately contracted janitorial company to issue an order. It’s a potential mess, and it might also extend to partnerships and contracts CMS has with athletic associations and after-school groups that use school facilities.

We don’t always agree with the choices CMS makes regarding its properties. But we believe school officials are best equipped to make those decisions, and they have been adequate stewards of the bond money approved by voters. As for the county having to buy back properties CMS is no longer using? School systems, including CMS, should be made to simply give those properties back.

SB 236, which is likely to pass the General Assembly, may be good for other N.C. counties, but the system isn’t broken in Mecklenburg. County commissioners should leave it intact.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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