Here’s why the CMS bond package is heavy on middle schools
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ $3 billion bond request includes only four new schools — and three of them are middle schools.
The last time voters approved school bonds, in 2017, the pattern was different. That package included five new elementary schools, two new high schools and two K-8 world language magnet schools.
This time around, officials say neighborhood middle schools are feeling the strain — and that’s where they’re trying to add capacity.
Community House Middle, in south Charlotte’s Ballantyne neighborhood, has more than 1,400 students. CMS construction consultant Dennis LaCaria says it’s the largest middle school in North Carolina, and beyond.
“I stopped after looking six states away,” he told county commissioners and school board members at a recent joint meeting on school bonds. “There wasn’t a larger middle school in Georgia or Tennessee. You gotta start looking at Texas before you see a bigger middle school.”
Members of both boards said they hear from constituents who worry about crowded middle schools.
“One of the biggest reasons I hear friends of mine deciding to leave CMS is overcrowding and facilities,” said CMS board member Summer Nunn, who represents south Charlotte and Pineville. “And the biggest complaints I get in my district are what’s happening at the middle schools.”
What’s in the plan?
CMS is asking the county to put almost $3 billion in school bonds before the voters in a November referendum. That plan includes:
- A new middle school in south Charlotte that would pull students from Community House, Jay M. Robinson Middle and Rea Farms K-8 School.
- A new Huntersville middle school that would pull students from Bailey Road and J.M. Alexander middle schools and Davidson K-8 School.
- A new southwest Charlotte middle school that would relieve crowding at Southwest and Kennedy middle schools.
Each of those schools would add about 1,400 seats, LaCaria said, for a total of about 4,200 additional middle school seats.
In addition, the district wants to replace six existing middle schools with larger buildings, adding still more capacity.
Will there be enough students?
LaCaria told commissioners and school board members that CMS traditionally sees enrollment fall off in middle school, then rebound in high school “because folks recognize that they can’t get what CMS high schools offer” in other settings.
“But we’re actually seeing more folks staying with us through middle school. And so we have a huge need for seats in the middle schools,” he said.
CMS enrollment remains in flux, with a significant drop during the height of the pandemic but some growth this year.
Enrollment reports submitted to the state show that in September 2019, before the pandemic, CMS had 12,049 fifth graders and 11,927 sixth graders, a drop-off of 122 students.
This year CMS reported 10,770 fifth graders and 10,431 sixth graders, a difference of 339.
But district totals don’t reflect the uneven enrollment changes in various parts of the county. And the district is trying to forecast what will be needed in schools opening as late as 2030.
County commissioners will decide how much school debt they’ll ask voters to approve in November. Chief Financial Officer Dennis Boyd told the district he’s recommending commissioners consider no more than $2.5 billion. That would still result in a significant property tax increase but require CMS to eliminate half-billion dollars of planned projects.
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