Lawmakers discuss details of dividing school districts

By: Lindsay Marchello - Carolina Journal

RALEIGH — A committee studying school-district divisions has raised more questions so far than it has answered.

The Joint Legislative Study Committee on the Division of Local School Administrative Units met Tuesday, March 13, to discuss the consequences of breaking up large school districts, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County. Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County school districts each serve more than 100,000 students. The average number of students in districts statewide is about 12,000.

Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, co-chair of the committee, made the committee’s goal clear: Define the problems that may arise from breaking large school districts into smaller ones. Any legislation would come after the study committee has finished researching the subject.

Staffers from the Department of Public Instruction highlighted many questions and challenges posed by the move — in the realms of logistics and legality.

Legislators heard testimony about how any decision to divvy up school districts should consider the effects on school nutrition programs, transportation, insurance, contracts, and information technology services.

Michael Nicolaides, chief information officer at DPI, said major changes in school districts — whether a merger or a division — leaves them vulnerable to cyber-attacks. These vulnerabilities make vigilance necessary so systems are less likely to be compromised, Nicolaides said.

Kevin Harrison, transportation services section chief at DPI, said transportation options are possible. The question is whether local districts prefer efficiency over independence.

Lawmakers also will have to consider legal questions, including whether a school district could be divided without violating the constitution.

Eric Snider, an attorney for the State Board of Education, said plans for school-district divisions would probably lead to public scrutiny.

“Is the plan fair?” asked Eric Snider, an attorney for the State Board of Education. “That’s going to be where the rubber hits the road for folks in districts that are perhaps working their way through this kind of process.”

Snider said dividing schools between districts and school reassignments will likely invite legal action as parents may challenge district boundaries or new assignments.

Brian Gwyn, a legislative analyst for the General Assembly, said lessons could be learned from Jefferson County, Alabama, where Gardendale city wanted its own district separate from the county system. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the city could not form its own school district because evidence showed a racially discriminatory intent. Furthermore, Jefferson County was under a desegregation order which also prevented the school district division.

North Carolina’s situation is different from Jefferson County, as no large school districts in the state are under a desegregation order. Gwyn also pointed out that North Carolina is in the 4th Circuit and not the 11th.

Brawley, along with co-chair Sen. David Curtis, R-Gaston, wanted the presentation on constitutional implications of a division to address concerns about the motives behind breaking up large districts.

“It’s not enough to avoid wrongdoing but I think we would have to positively pay attention to the needs of all the community and input from all because otherwise there would be mistrust,” Brawley said. “The intent of any of our changes would be to improve education and tearing a community apart is not a way to do that.”

Still, Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, raised concerns about how dividing a district may harm minority students.

“What measures do you have in place that would prevent that from happening, that discriminatory factors would not be the major factors in North Carolina as we move forward to breaking up large school systems?” Waddell said.

The next meeting is tentatively set for March 28 and will cover how the size of a district affects school performance.

Lindsay Marchello

Carolina Journal