Lennon: CMS break-up doesn’t take note of tax issues

by Tori Hamby and Josh Lanier

A move to split Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools into three independent school districts is gaining traction in the Lake Norman community. But some school board members say local leaders should pause before supporting the movement.

A group of north Mecklenburg residents fed up with the enormity of the more than 500-square-mile, 140,000-student school district recently mobilized to create SPARK Educational Performances. The organization, along with the South Mecklenburg Alliance for Responsible Taxpayers (SMART), a similar south Mecklenburg group, is trying to rally legislative support to divide the district into northern, central and southern school districts, a move that could happen if both houses of the N.C. General Assembly approve a bill allowing the split.

“We have 500 square miles of Mecklenburg County,” said SPARK leader and Huntersville resident Tom Davis. “(The northern towns) have one person going downtown to represent us. We don’t have enough representation for the amount of money we put into the school system.”

A move back toward segregation?

The effort has drawn fire from the NAACP, which claims that the movement is part of “the most recent schemes and shenanigans of the suburban, ultra conservative and separatist communities,” to re-segregate the district. With most of the county’s high-poverty schools located in the central part of the county, the move would leave the central district alone in dealing with the problems that often come with underperforming, high-poverty and schools. Most of the schools in the county’s suburban communities also happen to be low-minority.

Not so, Davis said. The northern school district proposed by SPARK incorporates a handful of Mountain Island-area schools that receive Title 1 funds, money given by the federal government to schools that have a high percentage of low-income families, regardless of the schools’ racial breakdown. According to data released by the state after the 20th day of the current school year, white students constitute only 15 percent of enrollment at Whitewater Elementary School and 9 percent at Whitewater Middle School, both of which would be included in the northern district.

“I think this answers the argument that it’s only white, rich people up north that the split would help,” Davis said.

‘A flawed solution’

While the idea sounds good in theory, according to school members Rhonda Lennon, Tim Morgan and Amelia Stinson-Wesley, the movement fails to acknowledge the important role that the tax base of central Mecklenburg County, particularly Uptown Charlotte, plays in funding the school system. SPARK’S official position paper states that each district would have its own school board with tax authority, removing about half of the county’s taxing authority. But doing this, the school members say, could be detrimental to the smaller Lake Norman and south Charlotte communities.

“The question that must be addressed is, will 50 percent from the county be enough to pay for two separate systems in these bedroom communities?” Lennon said in a Letter of the Editor, co-signed by Morgan and Stinson-Wesley. “More local control doesn’t reduce the need for people and staff to run each department, especially those mandated by Raleigh.”

Also, Lennon said, with the county commission board hearing capital project requests from three different school districts instead of one, and only two out of nine commissioners looking out in the interest of the county’s suburbs, north and south Mecklenburg residents could see capital funding for new schools and renovations slip away.

Davis said, however, that while tax dollars generated downtown would stay in the central school district, the high level of taxpayer accountability and more effective per-pupil-spending rate potentially created by the split would be worth the loss of those tax dollars. A recent report presented to the Board of Education showed that the exceedingly overcrowded Torrence Creek Elementary School in Huntersville has one of the lowest per-pupil-spending ratios in the county, a type of problem Davis said he believes could be alleviated by a split.

The movement has received backing from several area officials, including Huntersville Town Commissioner Charles Jeter who, along with Davis plans to run for the new District 92 seat in the N.C. House of Representatives.

Because the split would ultimately be decided in the N.C. General Assembly, it could become a hot-button issue in the upcoming election for state seats.

“I believe the closer we can get to the students the better we can educate them,” Jeter said. “I truly believe that, but we also have to make sure we are completely understanding of what a split would look like.”

Jeter said splitting north Mecklenburg schools into their own district would likely mean a large tax increase to pay for it and he doesn’t think Huntersville has the political will to complete such a feat right now. Especially, he said, since county commissioners voted earlier this month to build Stumptown Elementary, which will alleviate overcrowding at Torrence Creek Elementary School.

“I still believe this is an idea worth examining,” he said. “But we’ll have to find the right time to make sure we’re doing it properly.”

Want to know more?

To see SPARK Educational Performance’s complete position paper regarding the split, visit www.mimonitor.com

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