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Controversial Charter School Bill Passes House; Opponents Threaten Lawsuit

North Carolina General Assembly
North Carolina State Legislative Building

By a vote of 64 to 53, the controversial bill that would allow Cornelius, Mint Hill, Matthews and Huntersville to operate a charter school passed in the House Wednesday. 

If town officials apply for a charter school, House Bill 514 will allow the municipalities to use property taxes to build and operate it—a first for the state. Opponents of the law have called it discriminatory and vow to challenge it in court.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials say the law will lead to more segregated schools because it gives enrollment preference to students in the predominately white-populated towns. Supporters of the legislation say it will reduce township schools overcrowding.

Before the House vote, most questions raised came from opponents concerned that the bill would allow a major tax law change without being properly vetted. 

“None of us in here sat in a committee, " Mecklenburg County Democratic Rep. Becky Carney said. "Finance didn’t take it up as an independent bill.”

“Is this a good idea?" Carney continued. "What are the ramifications? Who has the authority to spend what on what? What can you use that property tax increase for? It’s not just for facilities, it’s for whatever.”

North Carolina NAACP officials describe the law as racially discriminatory and have vowed to wage an “all-out fight” in court.

At a press conference Tuesday, education leaders and local clergy also said they would consider challenging the law on legal grounds. After the vote, CMS officials released a statement saying they will study the potential impacts of the law.

State legislators treated HB 514 as a local bill that did not need Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature. Cooper has expressed concern about the legislation. CMS board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart has characterized HB 514 as a state bill, requiring the governor’s signature because it was amended to include Huntersville and Cornelius.

“The fact that the two Northern towns were added has taken it out of local bill status and made it a statewide bill," Ellis-Stewart said, "So the governor does have the option to veto."

Ellis-Stewart said she also believes HB 514 qualifies as a state law because it allows teachers in the proposed charter school to participate in the state’s retirement and health plans. Republican state Sen. Jeff Tarte, who represents Huntersville and Cornelius, said state benefits for teachers at a charter school in the towns has changed several times in the legislation.

“It was in the bill to make sure it was clear, but it was also unclear whether it was a local bill or a public bill,” Tarte said. “We took it out because the staff attorney told us it was not necessary. If it ever becomes an issue of clarification, and we need codify, we’ll make sure we put that language down.”

As legislators and most others try to figure that out, NAACP officials say they are devising a strategy to best challenge the law. Education leaders say as they rally grass roots supporters, they are open to joining the civil rights group in a lawsuit to have the legislation repealed.