Don’t let CMS enrollment slump fool you. Planner says to brace for 71,000 more kids

CMS Board of Education passes “Municipal Concerns Act of 2018” 7 to 1

CMS board members voted to block school construction in Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius and Huntersville. Members also directed the Superintendent to explore reassigning students in their town.
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CMS board members voted to block school construction in Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius and Huntersville. Members also directed the Superintendent to explore reassigning students in their town.

Despite recent stagnation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools enrollment, Mecklenburg County expects to add almost 71,000 school age children in the next two decades, a city planner said Tuesday.

The bulk of that growth will be in the city of Charlotte, with Huntersville a distant but fast-growing second, Charlotte data analyst Rebecca Anderson Hefner told CMS board members and town officials.

Matthews Town Commissioner Jeff Miller said he was encouraged by the two-hour data dive, designed to help all local officials understand the challenges of planning for public education. “Up until now some of the relationships have been adversarial,” he said.

“We are all in this together,” CMS board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said.

The Municipal Education Advisory Committee — CMS folks are already using the acronym, pronouncing it “mee-ack” — is an attempt to unite a sprawling county that has long been fractured over school boundaries, construction priorities, race, class and community identity. Conflict between the school board and suburban town boards took on statewide significance this summer, when the General Assembly authorized four Mecklenburg towns to create their own charter schools, a move widely viewed as a potential precedent for other counties.

Discussion of House Bill 514 also led to a budget revision that authorizes all North Carolina municipalities to spend property tax money on schools for the first time. Only Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius currently have the power to create charter schools that can offer priority seating to town residents.

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In response, the CMS board approved the “Municipal Concerns Act of 2018” in August, creating the advisory panel that convened for the first time Tuesday. It also bumped the four HB 514 towns to the back of the priority list for future CMS construction and instructed the superintendent to report on possible boundary changes, sparking outcry from some suburban officials and residents.

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On Tuesday, the group reviewed historic data and projections on school-age population, as well as a list of CMS construction projects authorized over the past 18 years and a breakdown of property tax revenue by municipality. While CMS enrollment has been virtually flat for the past two years, some of the town officials have complained that CMS doesn’t do enough to plan for growth in their areas.

“There’s always discussion out there in the community, ‘I don’t get my fair share for what I pay,’” said Rhonda Cheek, who represents the northern suburbs on the CMS board.

As Hefner acknowledged, the school-age population is not synonymous with CMS enrollment, which is part of what makes school planning a challenge. This year about 25 percent of Mecklenburg students attended private, charter or home schools, and across North Carolina charter schools are claiming a growing share of public-school enrollment.

Even as the group convened by CMS begins its work, three of the HB 514 towns — Huntersville, Matthews and Cornelius — have created their own task forces to study education options. While there has been talk about pursuing municipal charters or even splitting CMS into smaller districts, Miller said he doesn’t see those as likely options.

“I don’t think anyone really wants a complete separation,” the Matthews commissioner said after the meeting. “We just want (CMS) to listen to us and we want to be able to provide school choice.”

In January the CMS education panel plans to review data on how public schools are funded, as well as present new lists that calculate school capacity and crowding using three formulas. While there’s no defined time frame or goal for the panel, the school board hopes it will help shape the next bond package that will go to voters. The district has not said when that might happen.

Several members said they’re glad elected bodies are sitting down at the same table — and that CMS plans to invite a representative from the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, which provides the money for school construction.

“This is a group that needs to continue to build relationships,” said Huntersville Mayor Pro Tem Melinda Bales.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.