CMS and town officials meet to talk school construction. Will unity last?

It took months of threats and drama to get there, but Wednesday morning the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School board shared breakfast with officials from six municipalities to talk about the future of public schools.

“In this new environment, how are we best going to plan for the future to best take care of all of the kids in our district?” CMS board member Elyse Dashew asked the group, which also included state legislators and county commissioners.

“This new environment” includes a state bill passed this summer to authorize municipal charter schools, a CMS resolution to bump any towns that won’t renounce that option to the bottom of the construction list and moves this week by two of the towns to study the prospect of town charter schools.

At stake is the unity of a countywide school district formed 58 years ago. The city of Charlotte and five of six suburban towns — only Mint Hill was not represented — sent officials to hear the CMS pitch for working together for public education.

It’s a plea the school board has been making for about three years, since it began a student assignment review that let to the current fractured political scene. Instead, the school board ended up approving changes last year without formal participation from the towns, while some suburban officials looked for paths to greater local control.

At Wednesday’s breakfast, convened by CMS, school board members said they approved new rules for construction priorities and ordered Superintendent Clayton Wilcox to report on possible boundary changes only because they want everyone working together with good data. They said it wouldn’t be good use of taxpayer money to pursue construction of a new CMS school — a process that takes several years — only to have the town open a charter school nearby.

“It doesn’t make sense to have two schools sitting side by side if we can’t fill them,” said CMS board Vice Chair Rhonda Cheek.

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Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox welcomes officials from six of Mecklenburg’s seven municipalities to a Wednesday breakfast to discuss school construction and municipal charter schools.

CMS officials told the group that each town is aware of crowding and school needs on its own turf but may not realize how widespread the needs are. The school board plans to convene a Municipal Education Advisory Committee, with representatives from each municipality, to review data together. The new group will start meeting this fall or winter.

The state shifted the education landscape this summer with House Bill 514, when it authorized Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius to open their own charter schools. Unlike the other state-authorized charter schools, municipal schools could get public money from those towns and give residents first priority for seats. Charter schools get state and county money based on enrollment.

On Aug. 28 the board approved a “Municipal Concerns Act” saying unless those four towns vote not to act on that authority for 15 years, they’ll fall below Charlotte, Pineville and Davidson on the priority list for future construction projects. That wouldn’t affect projects already approved in bond packages, and Dashew told the breakfast group that would only be one factor in deciding which CMS projects get funding.

“It’s not a prohibition” on CMS construction in those towns, she said.

Board Chair Mary McCray and Wilcox said they were encouraged by the turnout, which included several mayors and council members.

“I thought it was good that we had all the players in the room talking to each other, not at each other,” Wilcox said afterward.

But it was clear afterward that the path to progress remains rocky.

Matthews Commissioner Jeff Miller said he was pleased the breakfast group had “an open dialogue as adults,” but he still believes the CMS action was punitive.

In April, Miller was among three town commissioners who voted not to seek inclusion in HB 514, losing on a 4-3 vote. On Sept. 5, Miller and the two other Matthews commissioners issued a statement saying the board is “100 percent unified in our opposition to the Municipal Concerns Act.”

“That seems to be retribution for Matthews,” Miller said Wednesday. “The town of Matthews pays the same taxes as everyone else, yet CMS has committed to not investing in our town.”

Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla, whose board voted unanimously on Monday to create a task force that will study the town charter option, said Wednesday’s presentation didn’t change his mind.

The strongest voice for unity may have come from Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake, a retired teacher and former school board member who often takes CMS to task.

“We may cuss you out. We may fuss you out,” she said as the meeting concluded. “But nine times out of 10, we’re going to help you when it comes to education.”

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