A reckless school board tries to bully the suburbs

The most reckless public officials in Charlotte were at it again Tuesday, escalating a fight that needed to be calmed, threatening families they needed on their side and, once again, keeping it all secret from a public they appear to disdain.

In an act that was made public less than an hour before the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board met, board members voted to effectively block school construction in Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius and Huntersville. The “Municipal Concerns Act of 2018” also directed CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox to explore reassigning students in those four towns to schools located within town boundaries and, in some instances, out of better performing schools.

It was an extraordinary display of how not to cultivate a fragile relationship, and it went a long way toward affirming what many in the four towns thought of the relationship and the school board in the first place.

The move was a response to the passage this summer of a controversial bill, sponsored by N.C. House member Bill Brawley, that authorized the four towns to create charter schools that provide priority seating for town residents. Leaders in the towns had given explicit or implicit approval to the bill, despite some parents in the towns expressing reservations.

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School board members called Tuesday’s act a reasonable response to that bill, but it was bullying, plain and simple. Approve a 15-year moratorium on charter schools, the board said, or we’ll exile you and your families. It was a fundamental misreading of what had prompted Brawley’s charter school bill — not a desire in the towns to separate themselves now or later from CMS, but a need for insurance against a school board that perpetually threatened and scorned what suburban families want out of their schools: proximity and stability.

There are a lot of other things tangled up in that tension — race and economics, for starters. CMS leaders, like those in many cities, recognize the value of diverse classrooms for all students, but suburban parents are wary of what that means for their children. This editorial board has long advocated for more diverse classrooms, but we have cautioned school officials to be attentive to the skittishness of parents that CMS needs to stay in the district.

It doesn’t help that Tuesday’s surprise vote, which was apparently the product of meetings designed to skirt NC sunshine laws, was merely the latest example of an arrogant and secretive board that seems to care for the public’s input only when the next bond referendum rolls around.

Now, board members are taking a significant risk — and a premature one. If the four towns had truly begun to act on their ability to build charter schools, CMS could have then done everything it started in motion Tuesday. Instead, it shoved those towns toward seriously considering what to this point had been an expensive and uncertain proposition sometime down the road.

The move also does nothing to stop the proliferation of charter schools that already are dotting the suburbs and pulling kids from traditional public schools. It just gives families one more reason to leave CMS. We’ve always believed that all parts of the school system need to work, or at least exist, together. The charter school bill, unwise as it was, was merely a signal that the relationship between CMS and the suburbs was increasingly fragile. On Tuesday, it may have become irreparably — and unnecessarily — fractured.