CMS in the balance: Two Charlotte suburbs move toward building their own schools

Facing an ultimatum from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, two suburban towns voted Monday to study options for building and running their own public schools.

The Huntersville board voted unanimously and the Cornelius board voted 4-1 to create education study commissions that will evaluate creating town charter schools, a move authorized this summer when North Carolina’s General Assembly approved the controversial House Bill 514.

The nearly identical resolutions also call for town “educational options study commissions” to look at working with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as one option, and at splitting the countywide district — a strategy that state lawmakers studied and tabled this spring — as another.

The votes come amid questions about the future of a countywide school district formed 58 years ago. It’s a struggle officials and educators across North Carolina are watching, seeing Charlotte’s changes as a possible precedent. And it’s one that evokes comparisons with the historic desegregation decisions made in the 1960s and 1970s.

“We know that this is going to affect so many of our families. We can’t afford to get it wrong,” Huntersville Commissioner Melinda Bales said Monday. “This sets us up to get it right.”

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In July the General Assembly voted to authorize four Mecklenburg towns — Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius — to create town charter schools funded with local taxes, offering priority seating to town residents. That differs from the other North Carolina charter schools, which recognize no geographic boundaries and must use a random assignment lottery when applicants outnumber seats. The legislature also gave all towns authority to spend local money on public education, which has traditionally been a state and county responsibility.

Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican who sponsored HB 514, and town officials who voted to be included in the bill, say they’re just interested in protecting residents from a school board — including people who could be elected in the future — that’s not responsive to town needs.

But critics note that all towns included are richer and whiter than CMS as a whole, and say anything that carves out schools just for those residents increases racial and economic segregation. In June four former school board chairs who are African American held a news conference to call the battle against HB 514 a fight against institutional racism.

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In August, the CMS board approved a “Municipal Concerns Act of 2018,” which calls for cutting those four towns out of future school construction funding unless they pass a binding resolution not to pursue town charter schools. It also directed the superintendent to study reassigning students to schools within town boundaries and created a countywide Municipal Education Advisory Committee, slated to start meeting in January, with representatives from Charlotte and all six suburban towns.

That move, which was not discussed in public before the vote and was placed on the school board agenda at the last minute, brought outcry from suburban officials.

Cornelius Mayor Woody Washam said Tuesday that his town had asked to be included in HB 514 only to keep the town charter option open. Until CMS approved its Municipal Concerns Act, he said, the town did not intend to pursue its own charter schools. The CMS resolution “sort of boxed us in a corner.” The idea of losing capital funding for schools “was just not acceptable to us,” he said.

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Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla said he would have pursued town charter schools regardless of the CMS action. He said he’s been talking with charter school representatives and state charter school officials since HB 514 won approval. “This was always our plan,” Aneralla said after Monday’s meeting.

However, he said the town decided to explore splitting the district after the CMS board laid down the ultimatum.

There is only one African American representative on the four town boards covered under HB 514, Thurman Ross of Cornelius. Earlier this summer he cast the only vote against inclusion in the town charter bill. Monday night he cast the lone “no” vote against forming the Cornelius committee to study options, Washam said.

Discussion will continue Wednesday morning, when the school board hosts officials from Charlotte and the six suburban towns for a breakfast meeting. The meeting, at 8:30 a.m. in room 267 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, is open to the public. The Municipal Concerns Act is expected to be the main topic of discussion.

The Huntersville board named Bales to the CMS committee, though Commissioner Danny Phillips voiced skepticism that it will accomplish anything.

“She’s going down there into the wolves’ den. This is going to be a weighted committee,” he said.

The Cornelius board named Mayor Pro Tem Michael Miltich to the CMS committee. Washam said the town considers it important to keep dialogue with CMS alive.

“We love our (CMS) schools up here. They perform well and we’re proud of them,” Washam said. But with CMS threatening to withhold construction and renovation money, he said, “we’ve got to look to the future as well.”

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