Education

Should CMS take town of Matthews’ money for school safety? NC lawmakers get a warning.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Sean Strain (left) talks to Matthews Town Commissioner Kress Query before Thursday’s meeting of the House Select Committee on School Safety, held in Charlotte.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Sean Strain (left) talks to Matthews Town Commissioner Kress Query before Thursday’s meeting of the House Select Committee on School Safety, held in Charlotte. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

North Carolina lawmakers heard a warning Thursday from a Matthews town official that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools may not cooperate with the state on school safety improvements.

“We offer stuff to them and they don’t accept it,” town commissioner Kress Query told about 20 state representatives who came to Charlotte for a meeting of the House Select Committee on School Safety. “I’m not sure they’re going to do anything you ask because that’s the way they are.”

The topic at hand was money for extra security cameras at CMS mobile classrooms in Matthews. But there was little doubt this was the latest salvo in a long-running power struggle between the countywide school district and some of Mecklenburg’s suburban towns. That battle flared anew on Tuesday night, when the school board voted 7-1 to approve the “Municipal Concerns Act of 2018,” which effectively blocks future construction money in four suburban towns that were recently authorized to create their own charter schools.

The House committee, which has been studying school safety for several months, came to Charlotte as part of an effort to “get outside the bubble of Raleigh,” said state Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County, who chairs the committee. Members heard from three CMS students, Query and police officials from Huntersville, Matthews and Mint Hill.

The police officials said all of the towns are working with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and other emergency responders to train for the possibility of a school shooting. They talked about the need for more school resource officers — certified, armed police officers stationed in schools — and for better systems to let law enforcement into schools that are on lockdown.

Mint Hill Police Chief Tim Ledford, Matthews Police Chief Clark Pennington and Torbett all voiced concerns about schools that carefully lock their front entrances but prop open other doors during nice weather or when students are coming and going.

“You’re losing a level of security when you do that,” Pennington said.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox has said better enforcement of existing security measures is part of this year’s plan to make school safer. But he wasn’t at Thursday’s House committee meeting. The only CMS representative was school board member Sean Strain, who represents the southern suburbs and cast the sole “no” vote on the Municipal Concerns Act.

Strain wasn’t on the agenda to speak but said afterward he agreed with Query’s complaints about money for school cameras. The town of Matthews wanted to buy cameras that would let teachers in mobile classrooms see who’s knocking at their doors before they open them, Query said. He said CMS declined, saying the district has its own security cameras.

Strain, who was elected to the school board in November, said those discussions happened before he took office. But the same controversial bill that authorized town charter schools opened the door for any municipality to spend money for public education, effective July 1. Strain said CMS should go back to Matthews and accept the money for additional cameras.

The school board’s Tuesday vote also calls for forming a committee with representatives from the city of Charlotte and all six suburban towns to cooperate on planning and improving schools. But Strain said the rest of the act undermines that effort.

“It’s opening a can of napalm over a forest fire,” he said of the vote to cut some towns out of countywide construction funding. “If ever there was a bridge we were building, we’ve just done our best to light it aflame.”

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