CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - A bill that would let Matthews and Mint Hill create their own charter schools sparked fierce debate when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders and state legislators met this week.
There was one point of agreement: A bill that affects only two small towns south of Charlotte could change the face of school choice in North Carolina.
"It's a seismic change in the education policy of this state," said Charles Jeter, a former state lawmaker who now speaks for CMS on governmental issues. He said the bill sponsored by state Rep. Bill Brawley would let towns that are whiter and more affluent than the county at large use property tax money to create separate public schools for their residents.
"We believe that this is a resegregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools," Jeter said.
Brawley, a Matthews Republican, said he introduced the charter bill because constituents in Matthews were fed up with CMS.
"It is the parents of the kids in Matthews saying, 'We no longer have faith that CMS will provide an adequate education for our children and we want an adequate education. How do we get it?' Not only could you be their answer, you should be," Brawley told school board members at a Thursday breakfast meeting. "The fact that they don't trust you to educate their children should concern you more than this bill."
For decades Mecklenburg's suburbs have had a love-hate relationship with CMS. Residents tend to be passionate about their local schools – many moved there in search of strong public schools – but wary of Charlotte-based control. A recent student assignment review fueled that tension, and last spring Brawley – a CMS graduate and parent – introduced the Matthews-Mint Hill charter bill.
Charter schools are becoming a major player in the state's education scene. North Carolina will spend more than $500 million on 173 charter schools this year, with the largest concentration in the Charlotte region.
Those schools are run by independent nonprofit boards authorized by the state. They receive state and county money based on the number who enroll.
Brawley's bill adds a couple of important twists: The two towns could offer city benefits to charter school employees, and residents would get priority for admission. In other charter schools, students can apply regardless of town or county boundaries and are selected by lottery when there are too many applicants.
During the CMS student assignment review, former Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor created an education task force that discussed creating a charter school campus on town property. Admission priority for residents was one of the things task force members said would help the plan work.
Jeter, a charter-school parent himself, said that creates all sorts of complications: Matthews residents could end up paying for CMS schools through county property taxes and city charters through city taxes, regardless of whether they use either one. If town residents claim all the seats, families outside the city lines could be denied a shot at a charter school run with their state and county dollars.
Brawley pitched his bill as a preferable alternative to splitting CMS into smaller districts, which residents of Mecklenburg's northern and southern suburbs have asked for over the years. Another bill, co-sponsored by Brawley and approved last year, created a joint legislative task force to study the possibility of splitting large districts such as Wake and CMS.
Because the Matthews-Mint Hill charter bill is local legislation, it would become law without requiring the governor's approval if the Senate approves it. But Brawley noted that it would still fall to town officials to decide whether to act on the option.
The Thursday morning breakfast meeting, which was designed to build bridges between the majority-Democratic school board and the majority-Republican legislature, saw tensions flare dramatically.
Brawley said Jeter (a fellow Republican) told him if the charter bill is passed CMS might reconsider building or expanding schools in that area. "I saw that as a threat," he said. Jeter said it's a practical reality: If Matthews and Mint Hill students move to charters in large numbers, there would be less need for CMS space.
And Brawley insisted that CMS failure is what's driving suburban residents to seek alternatives. "I will tell you I'm disappointed in the quality of the education my kids received," Brawley said. He later elaborated that his biggest concern is illogical boundaries and constant change. "I'm not saying the schools were bad, but the lack of consistency was a problem."
Vice Chair Rhonda Cheek, a Republican school board member who represents the northern suburbs, said she was dismayed to hear Brawley "bashing CMS in CMS," a reference to the meeting in the district's uptown offices. "I really want us to stay productive and stay positive," she said.
"I'm being rude to you in your house because you ambushed me," Brawley replied. "I think we're being rude to each other."
Chair Mary McCray, a Democrat, said the charter bill opens "a chasm" that will make it hard for the two bodies to work together.
Rep. Becky Carney, a Democrat who co-chairs the local legislative delegation, said it was important to confront the uncomfortable topics. "This was a good meeting," she said, "contrary to what some of us might feel."