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Matthews Commissioners Vote To Support Charter School Legislation

Kerry Singe

Updated at 2:15 p.m. 

Matthews town commissioners voted 4-3 Monday night to support House Bill 514, which would let the town open its own charter school, a move critics say could lead to higher taxes, weaker public schools and more segregation.

Before the vote, 13 local residents addressed commissioners. One man spoke in favor of the bill, saying Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had failed to provide a quality education to residents, while the other speakers urged caution and argued against the bill.

Matthews resident Monica Raab brought her three children with her to the lectern, where she said she worried a municipal charter school would not be as inclusive as public schools and that separate schools would increase segregation. She told commissioners they could work harder with CMS to find other options.

“When the American dream takes a hit in our community, that is bad for everybody,” she said. “I think what we’re going to get out of this is Matthews for Matthews, and the heck with everybody else. And that is not the lesson we want our children to absorb.”

HB 514 was introduced last year by state Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, amid concern about CMS’ student assignment review. Brawley has said he is pushing the bill because his constituents want more choice in the education available for their children. Fears about new boundaries and a return to busing students long distances from their homes did not materialize.

The bill would let Matthews and Mint Hill create their own charter schools run by independent nonprofit boards authorized by the state. The bill also would let the cities offer benefits to charter school employees, sparking concerns by some people that Matthews would have to increase taxes to support these employees.

Brawley and Republican state senator Dan Bishop attended Monday’s meeting.

CMS officials say HB 514 could upend public education statewide if other municipalities decide they want to start their own charter schools. One concern is that a large number of families could abandon public schools, weakening them for those remaining.  

“Too little time has been spent collaborating to find solutions and too much time has been focused on advancing legislation that holds no promise to increase student achievement and may come at a higher, not lower, cost for everyone involved – not just in dollars but in futures,” CMS said in a statement.

The support for HB 514 has sparked strong words from CMS Board Chair Mary McCray and fears of retaliation by the school system. McCray told the Charlotte Observer that the board could reassign hundreds of Matthews teens who attend Providence High in Charlotte to Butler High in Matthews.

“Sometimes you’ve got to be careful what you’re asking for,” she told the Observer. “Sometimes when you give people what they want there are unintended consequences.”

Most residents who spoke at Monday’s meeting said they were very happy with the public schools their children attend, and they worried about their children being reassigned in the future.

Mayor Pro Tem John Higdon, who voted against supporting HB 514, agreed with speakers who criticized the town for not soliciting input from residents. Hidgon said the town should have held meetings and referendums, which it did not, and he called the town’s approach reckless and said that moving forward “wantonly disregards community input.”

“We should pull this bill and fully vet it with this community and find out if it is financially viable,” he said.  “Our children shouldn’t be used as political pawns because their education is too important.” 

Support for the bill was included in the town’s legislative agenda, which is what commissioners voted on. There was little discussion from commissioners about HB 514. Only Hidgon and Barbara Dement spoke against it. Jeff Miller also voted against the bill.

The bill has passed the House and could be voted on by the Senate after the General Assembly convenes next month.

After Monday’s meeting, Commissioner John Urban said he supported the bill because of conversations he has had with former mayors about longstanding concerns that CMS has not been responsive to Matthews’ concerns, including complaints about crowded schools and traffic jams. But he said he is still open to communicating with CMS.

“Whether this bill in Raleigh goes up or down, I’m still willing to work with them to find solutions,” he said.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, the Town of Matthews said the decision to support the HB 514 does not mean the town will take any action should it be signed into law. 

“Should HB 514 eventually be signed into state law, it only gives the locality the right to create their own charter school,” the statement said. “It does not mean that the Town of Matthews will take any action, let alone break away from CMS.”

The statement made it clear that the board’s vote “was in no way a vote to break away from CMS.”