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CMS and Mint Hill reach détente in long, twisted battle over suburban charter schools

A new Mint Hill Elementary School opened this year. It was built with 2017 bond money, which meant the CMS construction penalty didn't apply.
Ann Doss Helms
A new Mint Hill Elementary School opened this year. It was built with 2017 bond money, which meant the CMS construction penalty didn't apply.

Five years ago, educators and policymakers across North Carolina watched as Mecklenburg County lawmakers pushed a municipal charter school bill through the General Assembly that some thought would reshape public education across the state.

But none of the four towns authorized to create a new type of public school ever pursued that path. And a resolution on the agenda of today's Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting will likely lay to rest this particular battle over the best way to provide public education for the fast-growing suburbs.

The tensions that led to state lawmakers, town officials and CMS leaders trading threats and harsh words were real and painful. Some town leaders said Charlotte-based district leaders were oblivious to suburban needs and unwilling to meet the demands of growth in those areas. Some community advocates accused officials of towns that are majority white of trying to promote segregation and undermine equity.

In 2017, State Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews introduced a bill to create charter schools that would be run by municipalities, essentially allowing the towns to create their own schools, independent of the larger CMS system. For several months, the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Leading on Opportunity coalition brokered talks between CMS and Matthews town officials, hoping to persuade the town to call off Brawley and work with the district.

But reconciliation efforts failed, and the political crossfire that followed became increasingly convoluted.

In June 2018, Republican legislators from Mecklenburg’s suburbs won approval for House Bill 514, which authorized Huntersville, Cornelius, Matthews and Mint Hill to create their own charter schools. Like other charter schools in North Carolina, they would receive federal, state and county money — but unlike the others, town commissioners could run the schools, use municipal property taxes to support them and offer admission priority to town residents.

Opponents said the municipal charter bill could set a troubling statewide precedent. Leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools said the option undermined long-range planning for building new schools and expanding existing ones. And because the municipal charter schools could preferentially draw students from mostly-white town limits, they could undermine diversity in nearby CMS schools.

The school board countered with “The Municipal Concerns Act of 2018,” a resolution saying CMS would penalize the four municipalities in future construction planning unless officials of those towns passed “a binding resolution by their elected Board of Commissioners guaranteeing a 15-year moratorium” on using their authority to create municipal charter schools. It’s not clear that the demand was legal or enforceable, as it would require one set of elected officials to dictate decisions for other officials who might replace them in the future.

In the end, none of the towns pursued plans to create a municipal charter school. And one by one, Cornelius, Huntersville and Matthews took actions that satisfied CMS board members, who amended their resolution to end the penalty against them. By the time CMS drew up its list of projects to be considered for a 2023 school bond referendum, only Mint Hill was still subject to the penalty. But construction consultant Dennis LaCaria said that penalty didn’t prevent any Mint Hill-based projects from making the cut in January.

In fact, a new Mint Hill Elementary School opened in August. CMS built it using money from bonds approved in 2017, before the penalty was in play.

In February, Mint Hill Mayor Brad Simmons wrote to school board Chair Elyse Dashew questioning the legality of the CMS demand for a binding resolution — but also saying Mint Hill has never been interested in creating municipal charter schools.

“There has been no talk, official or otherwise, regarding the formation of any exploratory committees, conduction of feasibility studies, procurement of consulting services, etc., that could lead the Town down a path towards forming our own charter school,” he wrote, adding that he believes his meetings with Dashew have strengthened the relationship between Mint Hill and CMS.

The CMS board vote to drop the penalty against Mint Hill is on the school board’s consent agenda, along with approval of minutes and contracts deemed not to need discussion. Assuming the motion sails through, it will mark a quiet end to a long political drama — one that has outlasted most of the board members and state legislators who were involved in creating HB 514 and the Municipal Concerns Act.


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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.