Education

'Our kids aren't poker chips': Davidson bucks the town charter school trend

A kindergarten class at Community School of Davidson, a charter school in the north Mecklenburg suburbs.
A kindergarten class at Community School of Davidson, a charter school in the north Mecklenburg suburbs. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The town of Davidson broke with its neighbors Tuesday and voted unanimously not to take part in a push to let suburban towns outside Charlotte create their own charter schools.

Four other suburban towns — Matthews and Mint Hill in southern Mecklenburg County and Huntersville and Cornelius in the north — have expressed support for House Bill 514, introduced by state Rep. Bill Brawley last year. It could go before the state Senate for a vote in the coming weeks.

The bill, which emerged during the uncertainty of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools student assignment review, has been touted as a tool to protect communities and relieve school crowding in the booming suburbs. Critics, including CMS leaders, say it promotes segregation while putting municipal taxpayers in jeopardy.

Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox said Wednesday his board supports CMS and believes the charter bill has been rushed through with little public engagement.

"This has almost become a political poker chip with our kids," said Knox, a CMS alum and parent. "We're just not going to do that."

As it exists now, the bill applies only to Matthews and Mint Hill, which are in Brawley's district. But it has captured statewide interest, with some saying it opens the door to changes that could upend public education in North Carolina.

“Although this is a local bill currently affecting only Mecklenburg County, it could easily be expanded to any town," Wake County school board Chair Monika Johnson-Hostler said in a statement presented after a Monday news conference at the state legislature Raleigh.

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Knox disputed the notion that municipal charters are needed to cope with overcrowded CMS schools and neglect from the countywide school system. The town of Davidson also broke with its northern neighbors in supporting last year's $922 million CMS bond referendum. While the towns of Huntersville and Cornelius and the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce opposed the plan, saying it had too little for the north part of the county, the package passed with strong countywide support.

Knox said neither town commissioners nor Davidson residents have anything against the charter schools that are already flourishing in the northern suburbs. They're run by independent nonprofit boards.

Brawley, a Matthews Republican, has introduced a twist by proposing to let the two municipalities run their own charter schools. After CMS and former legislative staffer Gerry Cohen raised questions this week about the tax implications, Brawley said he plans to revise his bill and introduce new legislation that would overcome those obstacles.

As last week's opening of the 2018 session neared, Matthews, Huntersville and Cornelius governing boards voted their support for HB 514. Mint Hill hasn't taken a formal vote, but Mayor Ted Biggers said his board asked to be included in the bill last year and hasn't stopped supporting it.

So far Pineville and Charlotte have not weighed in.

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