A split for CMS? Lawmakers want to study how to divide NC school districts

State Rep. Bill Brawley spoke at a 2016 meeting on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the south suburbs, convened after Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor started talking about splitting the district.
State Rep. Bill Brawley spoke at a 2016 meeting on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the south suburbs, convened after Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor started talking about splitting the district.

Some state legislators want to look at how to split North Carolina school systems into smaller districts, a step that could someday make it possible to break up large systems such as Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

House Bill 704 filed this week would create a joint legislative study committee to look into whether legislation should be introduced to allow for the breakup of previously merged school systems. Two of the three main sponsors, Bill Brawley and John Bradford, are Mecklenburg County Republicans.

The committee would also consider how to divide school districts and whether a local referendum or petition would be needed before a district could be split.

Many transplants to North Carolina are used to individual towns running their own small school systems. In contrast, most school systems in North Carolina are countywide.

Over the years, many school systems in the state merged to try to save money and to integrate schools. The state went from 167 school districts in the 1960s to 115 now. In the Charlotte region, Cabarrus, Iredell and Catawba counties still have separate city systems.

“Over the past few decades, the emphasis in North Carolina has been merging small school systems to form big ones,” Brawley said Wednesday. “The idea was economies of scale would improve education in North Carolina.

“Now there’s a concern there may be diseconomies of scale in the big systems. They may be too large.”

Brawley said the study committee is needed because while state law lays out how to merge school systems, it doesn’t cover the process to break systems up. He has been active in south suburban discussions about splitting CMS, including talks initiated by the town of Matthews last year.

Secession talk is popular

When Mecklenburg’s suburban residents get frustrated with CMS, they have often talked of breaking off their own districts.

In 2005, hundreds of people complaining about crowded suburban schools and an unresponsive central administration packed “secession” meetings. A school board member and a county commissioner went to Raleigh to pitch the secession plan, but members of the House education committee refused to hear them and overwhelmingly voted down a bill that would have let Mecklenburg voters weigh in.

Last year, faced with uncertainty over CMS student assignment, Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor formed an education task force that talked about trying to break off from the countywide district. But this spring the task force recommended exploring municipal charter schools rather than trying to secede.

In Wake County, some suburban residents who have voiced frustration over student assignment say breaking up the district would make sense, partly because more students could attend schools closer to their homes. Wake is the nation’s 15th largest school district with 159,000 students, while CMS is 18th with 147,000.

“I’d much prefer to be one of the best school districts in the country than one of the biggest, and we’ll never get there being as large as we are with the bureaucracy as large as it is,” said former Wake school board member Ron Margiotta.

In 2010, when he was board chairman, Margiotta had publicly talked about breaking Wake up. But the idea didn’t go any further since it would have required approval in the state legislature, which was then under Democratic control.

Is this helpful?

Tim Lavallee, vice president of the WakeEd Partnership, a business-backed group that supports Wake County schools, questioned the need for the legislation.

“If a school district wanted to seek to divide itself into smaller districts with the permission of the General Assembly, they could do that through filing a bill with one of their legislators,” he said. “There doesn’t need to be a structure coming from the state to break up a large district.”

Rep. Chris Malone, a Wake Republican who is the bill’s third primary sponsor, said he has wanted to study the idea of what a smaller district might look like since he served on the Wake school board from 2009 to 2012. He said he agreed to sponsor the bill because it’s only calling for a study and any changes wouldn’t come for a couple of years.

“If I thought anything would happen that would be disadvantageous to Wake County, I would vote against it in a heartbeat,” Malone said. “If they come up with something that’s viable and worthwhile, that would be fantastic.”

Wake County and Raleigh City schools merged in 1976. School board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said the merger has made Wake a healthier district by allowing the community to pool its resources. She said the unified district has also provided diversity to schools.

“Splitting up a unified district breaks up your ability to leverage all of your resources,” she said.

The committee is supposed to make a final report by May 1, 2018.

“We’re not setting out with the idea of breaking up any particular system,” Brawley said. “But it’s to have the discussion on how big a school system should be.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms