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Lawsuit Calls Mecklenburg Charter School Bill Unconstitutional Attempt At Segregation

Ann Doss Helms
Officials from CMS and the town of Matthews met in March 2018 to try to resolve differences.

The NAACP and two parents of students in Huntersville schools are suing North Carolina legislative leaders over a 2018 bill that authorizes four Mecklenburg County towns to create their own charter schools.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Wake County Superior Court, says House Bill 514 should be declared unconstitutional because it essentially creates new school districts for "predominantly white and affluent" towns, excludes students of color from outside those towns and undermines Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Tension between CMS and suburban towns, especially Matthews, flared when CMS launched a review of student assignment plans in 2015 and played out over the next three years. The lawsuit claims that town officials and state legislators used the threat of creating separate schools to pressure the school board to "significantly limit the scope" of efforts to boost diversity and break up concentrations of poverty in the plan that eventually emerged.

HB514 authorizes Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius to create their own charter schools that -- unlike the state's other charter schools -- could use municipal tax money and give town residents priority for admission. The towns range from 64% to 79% white, according to the lawsuit, while CMS is currently 27% white.

The lawsuit says creating separate charter schools would exclude students of color who live outside town boundaries and would drain resources from CMS.

None of the towns has created such schools, and only Huntersville is actively studying the option.

The Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, based in Washington, D.C., and the Charlotte law firm Tin Fulton Walker & Owen filed the suit on behalf of the North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP groups and CMS parents Gregory "Dee" Rankin and LaToya Dawson.

North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore are the named defendants. They have not responded to emails seeking comment.

State Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews sponsored HB 514. He was defeated in his 2018 bid for reelection.

Paul Bailey of Matthews was a school board member when the student assignment review began. The lawsuit says in 2015 he texted Jim Taylor, then the mayor of Matthews, and asked if Taylor was "ready to start a Matthews school system." 

Bailey left the school board in 2017 and was elected Matthews mayor. He supported HB514, but lost that seat last year to John Higdon, who opposed it.

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.