Despite warnings that it could resegregate North Carolina schools, a bill that would allow Mecklenburg County towns to run their own charter schools moved closer to passage Thursday.
The N.C. Senate tentatively approved House Bill 514 after a sometimes heated debate over the local and statewide implications of the measure.
One supporter called it a warning shot not only to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools but school systems across the state. And one CMS official said the bill, supported by four of Mecklenburg's six towns, signals a possible break-up.
"Let's be honest," said Charles Jeter, CMS government relations coordinator. "The towns have asked for a divorce."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Supporters said the bill would give suburban parents options and ensure that towns frustrated by a lack of CMS facilities and resources can provide their own in the form of town-run charter schools. The bill, which originally affected only Matthews, was expanded to include Cornelius, Huntersville and Mint Hill.
Suburban towns have long complained that most CMS resources go to Charlotte schools. Sen. Dan Bishop, a Charlotte Republican, told senators that was the message from Matthews Mayor Paul Bailey.
"What Mayor Bailey told me this morning was, 'We just want to figure out how to get adequate seats for our students'," Bishop said.
Opponents of the bill said it could result in higher taxes for town residents who also pay for schools through state and county taxes. If a town-run charter failed, Jeter said, taxpayers could pick up the costs. But even bill opponents criticized CMS.
"CMS is arrogant, they don't listen, they are not transparent or accountable with the $1.5 billion budget they have to spend," said Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat. "I can understand the frustration of the parents in (the four towns). However, I do not believe this is the best way to go about getting a better education for the children in the northern and southern part of our county."
Ford said suburban, town-run charters could split the student population along race, income and geographical lines. Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Charlotte Democrat and former school board member, said the bill "separates the rich from the poor."
"It does not provide equal access to education," she said. "We should not want legislation that would create racial division in our schools. ... House Bill 514 will open the door to a more segregated community and close the door on access to opportunities for those who need it most in Mecklenburg County."
While the bill only impacts Mecklenburg, a provision in the separate budget bill allows cities across the state to spend tax money for public schools.
Scott Mooneyham of the N.C. League of Municipalities has called that "a monumental change (with) very little vetting." In a committee hearing, representatives of the N.C. School Boards Association and the N.C. Association of School Administrators spoke against the bill, saying it has statewide impact that hasn't been fully studied. Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the school board group, called the bill precedent-setting:
"Once this genie is out of the the bottle you will not be able to get it back in."
On Thursday several Democrats warned that although HB 514 is a local bill, other cities could ask for the same authority.
"This is a slippery slope," said Democratic Sen. Fؓloyd McKissick of Durham. "You could end up with schools that could become more racially and economically segregated."
On Wednesday, GOP Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, the bill's sponsor, dismissed claims that municipal charter schools were the same as creating separate town school districts. He acknowledged that other towns could ask their legislators to run similar local bills but added, "It is equally likely that none of these four towns would open a charter school."
"I don't see how it has the sweeping effects that people fear," Brawley said.
But Republican Sen. Paul Newton of Cabarrus County called it "a shot across the bow" for other districts.
"If you are not listening to those whom you serve," he said of school systems, "we will go to the legislature."
The bill now moves to the House, which is expected to pass it next week. Ford, the Charlotte Democrat, said it carries an ominous warning for CMS.
"If CMS does not humble itself and learn to work with all aspects of our community, they will slowly but surely be dismantled," he said.