Education

Should North Meck break away from CMS? A Huntersville schools study weighs options.

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.

A Huntersville study commission recommended that northern Mecklenburg County form its own school district, but acknowledged likely opposition from state legislators and drew a quick rebuke from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Huntersville’s town board created the study commission last October and charged it with evaluating five options to reduce overcrowding in its schools. The town expects its population of 64,000 to grow another 34 percent by 2030, driving the need for three new elementary schools by then.

Critics say CMS has for years ignored school overcrowding in the fast-growing northern Mecklenburg suburbs.

The study commission, in a report presented Monday night, recommended that Huntersville partner with other towns to create a Lake Norman or northern Mecklenburg school district, saying that option “provides the greatest opportunity for addressing the long-term capacity needs” of the area.

“That is a huge lift that would take years to do,” commission member Jim Puckett, a former CMS board member and county commissioner, said Tuesday. But of the experts the commission consulted, he added, all said CMS “is just too large.”

The report also recommended that, within three to four years, Huntersville open a municipal charter school, either on its own or by partnering with an existing charter. A municipal charter became an option for Huntersville, Cornelius, Matthews and Mint Hill under state legislation passed last year.

CMS, in response, said northern Mecklenburg can’t legally start a new district without legislators’ approval that even the Huntersville commission said is unlikely. Charles Jeter, CMS’ government relations coordinator, said the study commission was stacked with members likely to advocate independence from CMS.

“We believe CMS provides the best educational opportunities for the residents of Huntersville and we would like to continue to work with them,” Jeter said. “It’s unfortunate that their leaders chose to poke CMS in the eye.”

A legislative study concluded last year that “any future legislation considered by the General Assembly to create a procedure by which citizens may initiate the breakup of large (school districts) will require additional study.”

That study, co-led by former Matthews Republican Rep. Bill Brawley, found no documented relationship between a school district’s size and the achievement of its students. It noted a “strong inference” that students perform better in smaller schools.

Based on current enrollment, a new district in northern Mecklenburg would be the 23rd-largest in North Carolina, the Huntersville commission said. It recommended that current school assignment borders not be changed to minimize disruption.

The report asserted that a smaller district would be more cost effective than continuing with CMS, saying public money would be spent on learning rather than “educational bureaucracy” and allow for more local control. It acknowledged that homeowners would shoulder more school operating costs, since northern Mecklenburg has less commercial property in its tax base than Charlotte.

Another potential problem is that while Cornelius has a similar study commission at work, and expects to report in late summer or early fall, neighboring Davidson does not. Puckett said he’s optimistic that Davidson would join a new district if Huntersville and Cornelius do.

Creating a municipal charter could also be a long-term solution to overcrowding, the Huntersville report said, but the town board would have to come up with “creative financial solutions” to pay for it.

CMS responded to the state legislation allowing municipal charters with a resolution last October that prioritized future capital funding in Charlotte, Davidson and Pineville, which weren’t included in the charter bill. The resolution pushed Huntersville and three other towns to the back of the construction line unless they renounced the charter option.

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