'CMS vs. suburbs': Town charter school movement spreads north of Charlotte

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett urges the Huntersville town board to endorse a town charter school option, calling it "a no-brainer."
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett urges the Huntersville town board to endorse a town charter school option, calling it "a no-brainer."

The push for town charter schools spread to Huntersville on Monday, when the town board voted 6-0 to ask for new taxpayer-funded alternatives to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Current and former officials cited decades of conflict between the northern suburbs and the countywide district, saying they've often been left with overcrowded schools and distrust of school board leaders.

"It really has been CMS vs. suburbs, and it really shouldn't be," said Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla. "People want stability. They want to know where their kids are going to go, kindergarten through 12. They don't get that with CMS."

The vote reflects what CMS leaders have said: A local bill that applies only to two south suburban towns has the potential to reshape public education and school choice, not only in the Charlotte area but throughout North Carolina.

State Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, last year introduced House Bill 514, which would allow the southern suburbs of Matthews and Mint Hill to create town charter schools supported by municipal taxes, with seating preference for town residents. That's different from regular North Carolina charter schools, which get state and county money based on enrollment and must admit students by random lottery, regardless of where they live.

The bill sparked months of negotiations between leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the town of Matthews — at first in private small-group sessions and later in two joint board meetings.

The yet-unsettled conflict rattled many parents last month when CMS said if the bill passes, the district might re-assign hundreds of south suburban students.

CMS Huntersville 2
Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla (center) argues that his town needs a charter school option as a way "to push back on CMS." Ann Doss Helms

Monday's discussion at the Huntersville Board of Commissioners meeting echoed many of the themes that arose in Matthews. Huntersville officials said they value their public schools and might never decide to pursue a town charter school.

"The town of Huntersville does not want to be in the education business," said Commissioner Nick Walsh. But he and his colleagues said northern schools are overflowing, even with thousands of students enrolled in independent charter schools, and argued that upcoming CMS construction approved in a $922 million bond package will provide little relief.

Like their southern counterparts, Huntersville officials and public speakers also said that without leverage, CMS could break up community schools.

For more than 20 years, what northern residents have gotten from CMS is "overcrowding and massive busing for suburban families," said Karen Bentley, a former county commissioner who was part of a group of parents who sued in the 1990s to end court-ordered desegregation.

"If we don't come up with something some way, Huntersville children will not be going to school in Huntersville," said town Commissioner Danny Phillips.

Also like Matthews, Huntersville saw some town residents speak against HB 514, saying they'd rather see town leaders work with CMS.

Regardless of intent, a move toward town charter schools would result in "increased racial segregation of schools and less funds for schools that are already hurting," said resident Tony Lowe. "Schools close to home in segregated neighborhoods are segregated schools."

Resident Carrie Warren said the town is rushing into an arrangement "that feels akin to running into a burning building and punching CMS in the face. What are we doing? And why?"

Approval of the resolution means Huntersville will add its support for the Matthews-Mint Hill bill and ask to be added to it.

HB 514 passed the state House last year and could go to the Senate after the legislature convenes May 16. Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican who attended Monday's meeting but did not speak, told CMS leaders that if he were to support it, he'd add the requirement for a referendum before a town could launch a charter school.

Aneralla said if the bill is approved — and even if it's not — the likely next step is for Huntersville to form an education task force.

CMS General Counsel George Battle III and the district's staff legislative advocate, Charles Jeter, attended the Huntersville meeting but did not speak.

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