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Report: Charlotte, Matthews joust over municipal charter school bill

A brewing state bill that would allow the creation of municipal charters in two Charlotte suburbs has area leaders engaged in a tense back-and-forth, The Charlotte Observer reports.

Policy Watch reported last month on the debate over schools in Charlotte, which has a precedent-setting feel when it comes to suburban parents clamoring for a split from larger school systems like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

A state legislative panel completed a report this year with no clear recommendations for how to divide school districts, although a lingering bill to clear municipal charters near Charlotte has the potential to bolster some of the re-segregation concerns that has K-12 advocates up in arms, critics say.

From The Charlotte Observer:

Quiet negotiations are flaring into a full-blown public relations war as the town of Matthews and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools take competing messages about town charter schools to taxpayers and families.

Monday night, the south suburban town’s Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 to endorse a bill sponsored by state Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, that would let the town create its own charter schools. A statement issued afterward described the bill as simply a preliminary step toward exploring options, “in no way a vote to break away from CMS.”

Tuesday evening the CMS board is scheduled to discuss its opposition to the bill, which several board members say could set a precedent that would undermine public education across North Carolina. The board already issued a statement saying approval of the bill could force reassignment — the board chair talked about moving hundreds of Matthews students out of Providence High School — and drive up taxes for all Matthews residents.

What makes House Bill 514 different is it would authorize Matthews and nearby Mint Hill to use local tax money to support those schools and give preference to students who live within town limits. Other charter schools must use a random lottery when there are more applicants than seats; students often come from a wide area, including across county lines.

HB 514 passed the House last year and could go to the Senate after the General Assembly convenes May 16.

Matthews officials note that even if the bill is approved, the town would still have to decide whether to apply for a charter and go through the state selection process before it could open schools. But CMS officials argue that they have to prepare for an unprecedented type of competition that could deplete large numbers of students from a tightly-defined area.

Last fall CMS leaders turned to the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Leading On Opportunity coalition for help persuading Matthews officials that the bill would prove detrimental to educational opportunity and economic mobility for everyone in Mecklenburg County. For several months those groups have brokered talks between the two groups, initially held with only small numbers of elected officials so the sessions wouldn’t have to be public.

The two full boards held public joint meetings in March and April but could not reach agreement.

The arguments are happening not only between the two boards, but among them.

CMS board Chair Mary McCray said last week that Matthews Mayor Bill Brawley had texted her to say a straw poll showed six of the seven board members in favor of keeping HB 514 alive. The final 4-3 vote came after several Matthews residents voiced concerns Monday about the effect on taxes, CMS schools and racial diversity, WBTV reported.

Meanwhile, school board member Sean Strain, who represents the district that includes Matthews, said Monday that he was not given a chance to review or approve the statement that went out on behalf of the CMS board. Strain, who was elected in November, says he’s neutral on HB 514 but believes the CMS statement exaggerates its impact on district schools.

“I don’t see it as that kind of a threat. I work in the business world and if you don’t do your job somebody else will do it for you,” Strain said Monday. By declining to even give him a heads-up on the message, Strain said, his colleagues left him unable to explain the CMS position. “I couldn’t answer my constituents’ questions that I received on the soccer field over the weekend,” he said.

The CMS board will discuss the effects of HB 514 at Tuesday night’s meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. and is streamed live.

Less than 48 hours later, the CMS board has a breakfast meeting scheduled with members of the local legislative delegation, which could lead to another lively debate over the bill. Brawley has not returned the Observer’s call seeking comment on the latest developments.

The breakfast meeting is at 8:30 a.m. Thursday in Room 527 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. It is open to the public, but there will be no public comment period.

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Report: Charlotte, Matthews joust over municipal charter school bill