Bill allowing municipal charters faces financial, legal challenges

By: Lindsay Marchello - Carolina Journal

RALEIGH — Democrats and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials are claiming a bill allowing municipalities to create charter schools would only lead to financial complications and legal conundrums. But the sponsor of the bill says a few adjustments in the language would address those concerns.

On Monday, Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, and Rep. John Autry, D-Mecklenburg, held a press conference with senior CMS officials on House Bill 514.

H.B. 514, Permit Municipal Charter Schools/Certain Towns, would allow the towns of Matthews and Mint Hill to create their own charter schools separate from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. The bill could open the door for other towns to follow.

Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, introduced the bill last year and it passed the House by a 78-39 margin. The bill had stalled in the Senate education committee but it could reappear during the short session.

Brawley said the bill was requested by town residents. It’s meant to relieve a crunch caused by overcrowded schools.

“The ability to build charter schools gives the towns the ability to add capacity for the new students that are coming in if Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will not build new schools, which they are currently refusing to do,” Brawley told Carolina Journal.

CMS has criticized the bill since its inception, arguing it could lead to resegregation and reduce opportunities for all students.

Monday’s press conference highlighted legal and financial concerns from the school district and area Democratic lawmakers.

George Battle, the general counsel of CMS, asked Gerry Cohen — an attorney at the General Assembly for more than three decades — to research the legal implications of H.B. 514. Cohen’s report outlines seven findings, but the press conference focused mainly on the first three.

Finding one says a town couldn’t incur debt for capital construction or land purchases for a municipal charter school. If H.B. 514 became law, Matthews and Mint Hill would have to pay upfront for any land or building purchases.

Finding two says a town couldn’t use state funds to buy land or construct a building. The only way a municipality could pay for the buildings would be with money from the county, donations, grants, or town property taxes.

Finding three says teachers in a municipal charter school wouldn’t be eligible to sign up for state retiree or other benefit plans. The other findings, in order, are:

• The towns of Matthews and Mint Hill could use property taxes for these charter schools.

• All employees of a municipal charter school would work for the town.

• The towns could not hire CMS to manage the charter schools unless the legislature set up a separate authority to do so.

• The town would operate any charter school and could not take on any debt to run it.

In addition to these financial obstacles, CMS Chair Mary McCray said the bill would lead to higher taxes.

“We don’t want to pay the increased taxes that this bill would inevitably cause use to pay,” McCray said. “This bill is a nightmare for taxpayers.”

Jackson said Matthews’ budget is around $23 million but a new elementary school would cost $30 million to build. (The bill doesn’t prevent the towns from leasing space or reusing existing government buildings for a school.)

“I don’t think the proponents of this bill have leveled with people in Matthews about the fiscal realities,” Jackson said.

Brawley said he is thankful CMS has brought these potential problems to his attention so they can be corrected.

“This is actually the most cooperation I’ve gotten from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the last year and a half,” Brawley said.

Brawley said his staff is working on a revision of the bill so that findings three, five, and seven will no longer matter, but findings one and two will require additional research.

“I have a gut feeling that all we have to do is go in and change a few words in the appropriate sections so we can address it,” Brawley said. “I think it is easily addressable and that’s why I thank CMS for bringing it forward.”

Lindsay Marchello is a staff writer for Carolina Journal.

Lindsay Marchello

Carolina Journal