CMS report blasts plan to let towns open charter schools: 'A nightmare for taxpayers'

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and Matthews town commissioners held a second joint meeting April 17 to talk about a municipal charter school bill and the town’s concerns about CMS.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and Matthews town commissioners held a second joint meeting April 17 to talk about a municipal charter school bill and the town’s concerns about CMS.

Critics of a bill that would allow Mecklenburg County towns to create their own charter schools took their fight to the General Assembly Monday, calling the measure "a nightmare for taxpayers."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school officials trumpeted a new report that said creating municipal charters would be costly for the towns, bad for teachers and have implications for local governments across the state.

The officials unveiled the report at a General Assembly news conference at the start of a session that could see lawmakers give final approval to the bill that has already passed the House.

It also came after two more towns — Huntersville and Cornelius — voted this month to join Matthews and Mint Hill in supporting House Bill 514, introduced by Matthews Republican Rep. Bill Brawley.

The bill would allow the southern suburbs of Matthews and Mint Hill to create charter schools supported by municipal taxes, with seating preference for town residents. Other charters get state and county money based on enrollment and must admit students by random lottery, regardless of where they live.

After nearly two dozen meetings with representatives of the towns and communities, CMS Chair Mary McCray said she was frustrated by the continued push for what she said would be a "seismic change" in education policy.

Mary McCray, Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair Observer file photo Mark Hames

"In short this bill is a nightmare for taxpayers," she told reporters.

Brawley said lawmakers already had identified problems and plan to address them both in a revised bill and in new legislation.

"Since they have verified the errors we had found, and did not find any errors that we had not discovered, CMS helped us vet the bill," Brawley said Monday. "This is the most cooperation I've gotten from CMS in a year and a half."

Among the findings in the report by former legislative staffer Gerry Cohen, longtime head of bill drafting:

Towns cannot incur debt for "capital construction or land purchase for a municipal charter school." That means a town would have to pay upfront.

Nor can a town use state funds to buy land or construct a building. The only way to pay would be with money from the county or donations, grants or property taxes.

Teachers at a municipal-owned charter would be ineligible for both the state teacher retirement plan and the local government retirement system.

Towns would not be able to raise property taxes for a school without a public referendum. That, Cohen said, is because funding a charter is not among the 49 allowable uses for property taxes under state law.

Some changes critics say would be needed in HB 514 could be made by simple amendment. But because the measure is a "local bill" that would only apply to Mecklenburg, other changes would require a public, or statewide bill. That would affect virtually every town and school system in the state and, unlike a local bill, require approval from the governor.

"They're not simple questions," Cohen said later, "and some of the answers are forced by the state constitution."

Rep. Bill Brawley of Mecklenburg County will co-chair a new state legislative study committee that will look at the best ways to break up North Carolina school districts. MLewis

Brawley said some issues would be addressed in a statewide bill. He did not specify which issues.

The report didn't seem to sway some of the bill's supporters.

"I do think (the bill) is feasible," said Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla. "The only way it isn't feasible is if the town runs the charters like CMS, which is top-heavy, bureaucratic and slow-moving."

Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla Marty Price

Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte said the financial hurdles would be steep. While Matthews' annual budget is $23 million, for example, a new school could cost $30 million.

"I don’t think the proponents of this bill have leveled with the people of Matthews," he said. "Even assuming that the town of Matthews wants to become the highest taxed municipality in the state, they couldn’t come close to affording (it)."

CMS got an assist Monday from the chair of the Wake County school board.

“Although this is a local bill currently affecting only Mecklenburg County, it could easily be expanded to any town," Monika Johnson-Hostler said in a statement. "Allowing cities and towns to establish charter schools raises many questions and would likely have unintended consequences."

Brawley said the debate had become partisan.

"If CMS was willing to address the reasonable concerns of the suburban towns," he said, "this bill would never have been necessary."

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill