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Cornelius And CMS Officials Mending Rift Over Town Charters And School Construction

Cornelius Mayor Pro Tem Mike Miltich, second from left, meets with CMS and other municipal leaders to talk about school safety.

The town of Cornelius is poised to come out of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools penalty box when it comes to school construction.

In May of 2018, the school board laid down an ultimatum to the towns of Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius: Renounce your option to build municipal charter schools or move to the back of the line for future school bond projects.

That resolution, called the Municipal Concerns Act, came in response to a controversial state law that allows those towns to use local tax money to open independent public schools. And that law, known as House Bill 514, followed suburban complaints about CMS assignment decisions, construction priorities and responsiveness.

It’s been a year and a half since that law passed, and so far none of the towns has taken steps to create town charter schools. Nor have any done what CMS required, by passing a 15-year formal vow not to do so.

District 1 CMS board member Rhonda Cheek

But Rhonda Cheek, the school board member who represents the north suburbs, says Cornelius came close enough with a September report from its education study group. That report concluded that moves such as creating charter schools or trying to separate from CMS aren’t practical.

"Basically the attitude on my board was, 'They’re ready to work with us; let’s make it formal,'" Cheek said Wednesday.

Despite the municipal charter tension, Cheek said Cornelius officials have continued to work well with CMS. Mayor Pro Tem Mike Miltich is working with the CMS on a panel of municipal officials advising CMS on safety, crowding and other issues.

So the school board will vote Tuesday to put Cornelius onto the same footing with Charlotte, Pineville and Davidson for future construction priority. Cheek says she’s confident the motion will pass.

And that could open the door for other towns to reconcile with CMS, she says. The town of Mint Hill, for instance, has done little to look at town charter schools despite being included in the bill.

Meanwhile, Cheek says there may be a quicker solution to crowding in some northern schools than waiting for a new school bond campaign: Redraw boundaries.

She said there are some underfilled elementary and middle schools in her district that are close to overfilled ones. She said she has asked Superintendent Earnest Winston to look at whether boundary changes might help balance them.

"I don’t want to build a new building to relieve overcrowding when there’s seats in a building we already own that are empty," Cheek said.

Earlier this month, a Huntersville town commissioner put a resolution on the agenda that called for endorsing the concept of splitting from CMS. He withdrew it after public criticism. Cheek was among those who voiced suspicion that the timing was tied to the Nov. 5 municipal elections.

Cheek said she doubts the CMS action will make a difference in the Cornelius town board race. But she said she did want to get the vote in before the at-large school board vote on Nov. 5, which will bring in at least two new members.

She said she "would rather have this happen now, before the school board election, while I still know all my eight other colleagues."

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.