The prospect of towns launching their own charter schools has altered the balance of power in Mecklenburg County's public education scene, as a Tuesday night meeting between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the town of Matthews illustrates.
The joint meeting — the second such session inspired by a controversial municipal charter school bill — ended with an unusual two-day deadline.
The school board wants town officials to decide by Thursday evening whether they'll pull the plug on House Bill 514, which would authorize Matthews to create its own independent public schools. In return, CMS would enter a three-month joint study with town leaders about ways to address their concerns, which include school crowding and the fear of massive busing.
Most members of the Matthews Board of Commissioners said they want to work with CMS. But some say that without what one commissioner called "a safety valve," the south suburban town has little leverage with the countywide district.
"If not House Bill 514, what would have brought us to this table?" asked Matthews Commissioner Christopher Melton.
School board members say the bill, introduced by state Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, could upend public education across North Carolina, similar to the way the lifting of the state's charter school cap has.
"This is the tipping point for something that could very much change the landscape of public education in the state," said CMS board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart.
Across North Carolina, charter schools are growing while most school districts lose enrollment. The competition is becoming more urgent as overall enrollment across the state shows signs of leveling off or shrinking. CMS projects its first overall decline in 2018-19, after five straight years of dwindling kindergarten enrollment.
CMS leaders say Brawley's local bill, which has passed the House and could go to the Senate when the General Assembly convenes in May, creates the opportunity for suburbs to carve off their own public schools, weakening the countywide systems that serve larger numbers of black, Hispanic and low-income students. The bill affects only Matthews and nearby Mint Hill, but they say it would set a precedent.
"I think it is the slippery slope that begins to separate our school system into a have and have-not system," Ellis-Stewart said.
The first joint meeting, in March, focused more on those demographic challenges and town leaders' fear that future CMS boards could break up their community schools to balance poverty and race.
Tuesday's centered on crowding in Matthews public schools. Town officials said they're frustrated by the clusters of mobile classrooms that surround their CMS schools to handle overflow students, as well as the glacial pace of school construction.
County voters approved a $922 million bond package in 2017 that includes a new Mint Hill/Matthews elementary school, but it's not slated to open until 2022. School board member Carol Sawyer urged the town board to join CMS in pushing county commissioners to step up the pace, even if it means a tax increase.
Town board member John Urban noted that private charter school chains seem to be able to build schools much faster. He suggested creating a partnership in which a charter chain might build a school and turn it over to CMS.
Mayor Paul Bailey noted that without House Bill 514, the town charter doesn't allow Matthews to invest in schools except for narrowly defined circumstances. If Matthews built a charter school, he said, that could free up seats and reduce crowding in nearby CMS schools.
CMS leaders noted the state is also considering a bond package for public schools, which could provide money for Matthews schools. They urged town officials to join them in lobbying for that bill as well as faster county spending.
But some town commissioners said asking Brawley to kill the charter bill would not only reduce the town's leverage with CMS but with county commissioners. "I think that the House bill is our strongest negotiating tool," said Jeff Miller.
During a break in the joint meeting, the six CMS board members who attended huddled with Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and other district staff. They came back and proposed a joint task force with a three-month deadline for bringing back solutions to the town's concerns — contingent on the town withdrawing support for HB 514.
A straw poll of the town board's seven members showed two opposed to the CMS proposal, one in support and four undecided. Mayor Pro Tem John Higdon, the sole supporter, said a promise to build a Matthews school might help: "If you throw a school in, wow, that might change people's minds."
Board Chairwoman Mary McCray said she needs an answer from Matthews by Thursday, though she gave no clear reason for that deadline. "There comes a time for action, and I feel like the time is now," she said.
A town board member asked what would happen if Matthews said no. The only answer CMS leaders offered was that they'd get serious about lobbying against the municipal charter bill.