Meck Commissioner Puckett Unhappy With New CMS Policy On School Construction in Suburban Towns

Aug 29, 2018

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett
Credit DAVID BORAKS FILE PHOTO / WFAE

The construction of new schools in Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville, and Cornelius would effectively stop under a policy the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board approved Tuesday night. It was a change school board members hinted at earlier this year after those four towns asked lawmakers for permission to create their own charters and spend property tax dollars on them. The General Assembly later passed a bill that allows them to do that.

School board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said the measure passed Tuesday night makes financial sense for CMS.

"Think about if you had a scenario where these communities could build schools, utilizing the charter school funds and then the next year we had to close schools," Ellis-Stewart said. "We don’t want to build schools and not have them utilized."

The measure hasn’t gone over well with Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, who represents northern Mecklenburg County. He’s a former CMS school board member.  Puckett joined WFAE's Marshall Terry on Morning Edition.

This interview has been edited for brevity. Listen to the full interview above. 

Q:  Were you surprised by this decision?

A: Not at all. 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.

Q: Board member Erika Ellis-Stewart says charters backed with town money could make it tough to plan new schools. What's your reaction to her concern?

A: The point is it shows the complete disconnect between how you plan for school growth in high growth areas. The towns are not the only ones who can start charter schools. Any group of people qualified can open a charter school and that's what's happening in north Mecklenburg. And that movement is booming because of CMS’s lack of funding for facilities over the last few decades. It was 48 years between North Meck High School opening in the early 50s to the next high school in north Mecklenburg opening even though the population there had grown two to three times in that period of time. They have just ignored that area for decades and they continue to do so.

Q: You're a former school board member. Does Ellis-Stewart make a good point though when she says the district needs assurance that any new school built will not be under attended if these towns do build their own charter schools?

A:  No, because the fact of the matter is for the last three years CMS has been almost static. They don't have to worry about growth because people are fleeing. Charter schools are growing anywhere between 2,000 to 4,000 kids per year in Mecklenburg County and CMS is losing children. They went down by 700 kids. If you want to use that logic then they should stop building schools altogether because their own numbers show a decline. You have to work with the towns, which CMS refuses to do. They did not talk to the town planners of Huntersville, Cornelius, or Davidson when they put together the last bond package that doesn't have a single seat in north Mecklenburg. So when you choose not to deal with the experts on population growth in your county and you just shoot from the hip, how can you possibly say you know what you're doing as far as future planning goes and the financial impact of that?

Q: In the e-mail you sent out Tuesday night, you called for a separate school system to serve northern Mecklenburg County.  This isn't a new idea. Is it realistic?

A:  It's becoming more realistic all the time. The General Assembly has the ability to do that when the school board just blatantly says we are not going to fund the capital and facility needs of taxpayers who fund the school system because we don't like the fact that they are calling us into account for our actions.  How can a parent trust moving to north Mecklenburg?   How could they trust that there would be sufficient facilities available in the future when the school system has said we’re going to ignore you?

Q: Towns such as Cornelius and Huntersville, which passed resolutions earlier this year in support of the charter legislation, can be removed from the policy the CMS board passed if they agree to a 15-year moratorium on town charters.  Do you think that will make those towns reconsider?

A: I certainly hope not.  By the same token, I would like to think that the citizens of Mecklenburg County could withhold funding for CMS under certain guarantees also.  You cannot ignore the free market.  If the towns because of the lack of planning on CMS’s part are forced to open their own charter schools because there’s not enough facilities and capacity built - if they don’t do it, others will.  It would be a self-inflicted wound for the towns to trust CMS further particularly when they are now showing exactly what they think of that area. They just see it as a cash cow.

Q: Part of your job on the county commission is to approve local funding for CMS.  What do you propose the commissioners do in response to this?

A: I hope that those people who were running at-large for county commission this November weigh in on this particular proposition. I would seek clarity from CMS and some rational reason for funding them. I have routinely not supported their budget requests not because we can't afford it, but because they can't make a logical argument for what they're doing and can show no data-driven analysis of what they get for the money they spend.  Tuesday night's action is just the last in a long line of examples of how disconnected they are from reality.