Eight members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board vowed Tuesday to fight for the loyalty of Matthews families, going on the offensive against town officials who want to open the door to municipal charter schools.
The CMS board used most of Tuesday night's meeting to make speeches saying the town charter bill would raise Matthews taxes, undermine participation in the public schools many residents love, increase segregation and divide the people who care about public education in Mecklenburg County.
"House Bill 514 would be bad for the children of Matthews. I know how well we serve the children of Matthews," board member Elyse Dashew said, launching a cascade of criticism against the bill and the town officials who supported it less than 24 hours earlier.
Several school board members accused Matthews town commissioners and Mayor Paul Bailey — who spent four years on the school board before being elected mayor in November — of acting in bad faith and neglecting their own constituents.
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Monday night, the south suburban town's Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 to endorse a bill sponsored by state Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, that would let the town create its own charter schools. A statement issued afterward described the bill as simply a preliminary step toward exploring options, "in no way a vote to break away from CMS."
HB 514 passed the House last year and could go to the Senate after the General Assembly convenes May 16.
School board member Sean Strain, who represents the district that includes Matthews, said his CMS colleagues were overstating the impact of the bill. He said he neither supports nor opposes it but contends it won't interfere with the district's mission of providing an excellent public education.
"I don't see it as that kind of a threat. I work in the business world, and if you don't do your job, somebody else will do it for you," Strain said Monday. He said he believes CMS can keep Matthews residents happy, giving them no cause to move toward creating a town charter school.
Charter schools — independent public schools run by nonprofit boards and authorized by the state — are nothing new to the Charlotte region. Locally and across North Carolina, they're growing while many school districts lose enrollment.
What makes HB 514 different is it would authorize Matthews and nearby Mint Hill to use local tax money to support those schools and give preference to students who live within town limits. Other charter schools must use a random lottery when there are more applicants than seats; students often come from a wide area, including across county lines.
Matthews officials note that even if the bill is approved, the town would still have to decide whether to apply for a charter and go through the state selection process before it could open schools. But CMS officials argue that they have to prepare for an unprecedented type of competition that could deplete large numbers of students from a tightly-defined area.
On Tuesday, school board members said that preparation could mean redrawing school boundaries and backing off support for new schools in Matthews.
"Matthews has expressed their willingness to build their own school buildings," said board member Carol Sawyer. "Why would CMS choose to invest?"
Last fall, CMS leaders turned to the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Leading On Opportunity coalition for help in convincing Matthews officials that the bill would prove detrimental to educational opportunity and economic mobility for everyone in Mecklenburg County. For several months, those groups have brokered talks between the two groups, initially held with only small numbers of elected officials so the sessions wouldn't have to be public.
The two full boards held public joint meetings in March and April but could not reach agreement. CMS board members said Tuesday that Matthews officials initially agreed to hold public engagement sessions to hear from constituents about the town charter plan, then backed away, leaving most families and taxpayers uninformed.
Rhonda Cheek, vice chairwoman of the school board, scoffed at this week's announcement that Matthews commissioners will hold a town hall meeting from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, saying that should have happened weeks ago. "The cart and the horse have gotten so twisted up it's tied in a knot and running around in a circle," she said.
Cheek said CMS already has plans in place to hold its own town hall meeting to inform Matthews residents about HB 514 if the town's meeting fails to address the issue.
Not all of the anger at Tuesday's school board meeting was directed outward. Last week, CMS issued its first public statement opposing HB 514 — a statement Strain said caught him by surprise and dismayed him.
After board Chairwoman Mary McCray suggested that CMS might reassign hundreds of Providence High students to Butler High in Matthews, a Facebook friend of Strain's posted a comment on Strain's page saying, "Methinks that you should buy a muzzle for Mary McCray." Strain responded with "Me thinks Ms Mary has some splainin' to do."
Strain took the statements down and apologized after Dashew and others chastised him for speaking disrespectfully about a colleague. But on Tuesday, both Cheek and McCray spoke at length about unnamed members' unacceptable conduct toward others. McCray left little doubt what she was referring to when she added, "Mary McCray as long as she lives and breathes is not going to be muzzled."
The biggest unknown in the flareup between CMS and Matthews may be how it plays out in the Republican-dominated state legislature. Brawley, the sponsor of HB 514, has not returned the Observer's calls seeking comment on the latest developments.
The school board has a breakfast meeting scheduled with members of the local legislative delegation, which could lead to another lively debate over the bill. The meeting is at 8:30 a.m. Thursday in Room 527 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. It is open to the public, but there will be no public comment period.