Updated Aug. 31, 2018
Local officials around Mecklenburg County are strongly criticizing a school board vote Tuesday that would basically stop new school construction in Cornelius, Huntersville, Matthews and Mint Hill.
The four towns successfully lobbied lawmakers earlier this year for the right to start their own taxpayer-funded charter schools.
The school board voted 7-1 for a policy that would give priority for new schools to the city of Charlotte, and the towns of Davidson and Pineville. The county's other four towns would go to the bottom of the list. Cornelius commissioner Kurt Naas said his town has no immediate plans to build a charter school, and called the vote "draconian and heavy handed."
"We've had no discussions. And right now we have no wherewithal to build or operate a charter school," Naas said. "So this reaction that the CMS board did was completely over the top."
Only Republican board member Sean Strain voted against the resolution, though board member Rhonda Cheek — who missed the meeting — said she also would have voted no. Cheek told WFAE she opposed the charter school bill, but also doesn't like what the school board's Democratic majority did.
"I believe that over the last few months there's been a lot of work done by myself, Dr. Wilcox, and Mr. Strain," Cheek said. "We've really tried to focus in on creating and opening up dialogue with the northern towns and the southern towns to try to come to a better partnership. I feel like what was done last night really is destructive to all that work, and really sets us back."
FOLLOWING THROUGH ON THREATS
The move was not exactly a new idea. The school board warned local officials of possible action last spring, after the four towns asked for the charter legislation. But the way it came about raised eyebrows.
The policy resolution wasn't on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting, and wasn't made public until just before the session started. Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla was among those caught by surprise.
"Well, certainly surprised and disappointed," Aneralla said. "We had a very productive meeting with the superintendent and the chairwoman of the board and several of their staff about a month ago, and left that meeting thinking we made a lot of progress."
The CMS board resolution said towns can get back into its good graces by promising not to pursue their own charter schools for at least 15 years. Aneralla said Huntersville won't do that. The town originally asked for the legislation only as an option, he said, and will continue to study the idea.
The Charlotte Observer editorial board even came out against the move, calling the school board reckless and bullying.
Some county commissioners were also critical. Jim Puckett represents District 1 in north Mecklenburg.
"Not at all surprised," Puckett said on WFAE's Morning Edition. "CMS spent the last two or three decades looking at the suburbs as a cash cow. It's stupid and childish and self-defeating, and they aren't even smart enough to figure out the actions that they’re taking are going to kill them in the long run."
At-large county commissioner Pat Cotham said penalizing the towns wasn't the right way to go.
"I just think retaliation is never a good a good way to do anything," Cotham said. "You know, it's harder to do the work of building the relationships, talking to people and listening to them, and keeping an open mind and trying to better understand. That's the hard part, but that is what yields better results."
The new policy also calls for the superintendent to study what it would take to transfer all students from the towns to schools inside their own boundaries. For some parents, that may not be a bad thing, but it could anger others, said state Rep. Bill Brawley (R-Matthews). He sponsored the charter school bill.
"I'm disappointed that CMS seems to believe that punishing the children of the parents that want to stay with CMS is a way to address the parents that want to leave CMS. But, you know, that's a decision they have to make," Brawley said.
In a statement Wednesday, CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox called for more cooperation, saying:
"We do this work best when we do it together. We will likely fail to match the beauty of our student’s dreams with divisive rhetoric. We all have to walk the walk of sharing a future together."
More reactions are still to come. Mayor Paul Bailey of Matthews did not return phone calls or emails. And Matthews mayor pro-tem John Higdon declined to comment. A town spokeswoman said mayors of all four affected towns plan to issue a joint statement in the next few days. (See update below.)
READ THE RESOLUTION
Read the CMS "Muncipal Concerns Act of 2018"
FRIDAY, AUG. 31, 2018 UPDATE
Matthews Mayor Paul Bailey issued the following statement on the CMS board action on Friday:
"I am very disappointed that the CMS Board once again proved their focus to be political retribution rather than working together to provide an excellent and equitable education for all students in Mecklenburg County. This is precisely the type of overreach and behavior that Matthews has experienced from CMS leadership for over 30 years; and the reason why HB 514 was a reasonable and necessary option for the Town.
"All along, HB 514 has simply been about providing another public school option for Matthews and Mecklenburg County families, and getting students out of trailers and into brick and mortar facilities. Now CMS is threatening reassignment and no new schools for the towns that supported this option.
"I will work together with the Matthews Board, the Mayors of Huntersville, Cornelius and Mint Hill, our County Commission, and our state legislators to determine the next course of action."