Education

Break away from CMS? Cornelius study finds separation a hard path to pursue.

A second study of what it would mean for suburban towns to break away from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools found “no easy answers,” even as town leaders continue to emphasize the need to relieve overcrowding in their neighborhood schools.

On Monday, the Cornelius Town Board heard the findings of a committee formed last year to explore educational options for the town, following the passage of House Bill 514. The legislation cleared the way for towns to create municipal charter schools, which are supported by municipal taxes and can limit seats to residents.

In May, a similar committee in Huntersville recommended that northern Mecklenburg County form its own school district, though it acknowledged that it would likely face opposition from CMS and an uphill battle in the state legislature. It also recommended pursuing municipal charters until a separate district could be formed.

CMS has sharply opposed both the municipal charters and the idea of splintering into smaller districts. Last August, the board passed the Municipal Concerns Act, which moved the towns that signed on to HB514 to the back of the line for capital funding and school construction, unless they signed a 15-year moratorium on opening a town charter.

Charles Jeter, CMS government relations coordinator, said that even if the state legislation allows for a municipal charter, the towns are discovering just how difficult it would be to carry out, given limitations on land and partnerships with existing charters.

“It seems (Cornelius) has reached the conclusion we’ve long maintained, which is that working together is infinitely better,” Jeter said. “If they’re doing honest research, what they’re finding is that the idea of creating a municipal charter is almost impossible to get done.”

Unlike its counterpart in Huntersville, the Cornelius Educational Options Study Commission was not tasked with recommending a course of action for the town. Instead, the commission studied five possible courses of action to present to the town board and found a range of challenges to assuming local control.

“We have a regional issue,” said Kurt Naas, a town commissioner. “I’m not sure we’re going to solve this with a municipal solution.”

Commissioners expressed interest in creating a new school district with other towns and parts of Charlotte in north Mecklenburg County. The move would give the region more local control, but the committee conceded that it would be an uphill political battle.

“A new district would provide us the regional control over our own capital budget we need, but it would be a very, very difficult lift,” Naas said. “As the takeaway says, there are no easy answers.”

Cornelius could pursue opening a municipal charter, education committee member Cynthia Bush said, but the town controls little unused land. Renting a building would require an exorbitant upfront cost, at least $1 million, before the school would receive any funding. Existing charters showed little appetite for partnering with the town, Bush said, and cannot limit enrollment by geography.

Opening a charter would also free up space in CMS schools that the district could assign new students to, the committee found, meaning the town could be taking on a massive investment that ultimately wouldn’t alleviate CMS crowding for kids who live there.

The remaining options are to work with CMS, or do nothing at all. Some town commissioners expressed frustration with the idea of partnering with CMS, citing a lack of responsiveness to their concerns in past interactions. Mayor Woody Washam said that he hoped the CMS board would repeal the Municipal Concerns Act as a gesture to show its willingness to work with the towns.

Washam said that while a day may come where it is politically possible to form an independent school district, he was looking forward to meeting with Superintendent Earnest Winston to discuss working together to address suburban needs.

“Continuing that dialogue in the meantime is the right answer,” Washam said.

Annie Ma covers education for the Charlotte Observer. She previously worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Chalkbeat New York, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Oregonian. She grew up in Florida and graduated from Dartmouth College.
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