Legislation that would allow Matthews and Mint Hill to create charter schools dominated discussions Thursday between school officials and state lawmakers. The bill, HB 514, still needs the approval of the senate. During the breakfast meeting, the only Republican legislator in attendance offered a possible alternative to the legislation.
Republican state Senator Jeff Tarte recommended that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials let the voters of Matthews and Mint Hill decide the issue in a referendum. Tarte, a north Mecklenburg County representative, said he’s heard officials and lawmakers on both sides of the issue say they have the support of Matthews and Mint Hill residents - which he finds confusing.
“The question is, how do we actually find out what the real answer is? That is a compelling component of whatever we do,” Tarte said. “What does the town want? What do the residents want? What do the parents want, and more importantly, what do the students want? Maybe the easiest way to find that out is to put it to a vote of the people and let them decide.”
CMS board Chair Mary McCray said district officials urged Matthews officials to hold town hall meetings on the bill, but were rebuffed. Town commissioners, who said a charter would allow more Matthews students to attend school closer to home, instead voted 4-3 to endorse the legislation. Matthews officials said if HB 514 passes, they would not necessarily apply for a charter school and would seek public input before doing so. They also see it as leverage to keep their issues on the district’s radar.
The Town of Matthews is predominately white and CMS officials said HB 514 will make schools more segregated. They said the town’s students would also miss out on the varied magnet, arts and athletics programs offered by CMS.
Under the legislation, the towns would be allowed to use property taxes to build and operate a charter. Charles Jeter, the district’s legislative liaison, told legislators that would mean a tax increase for residents that - at the extreme end of the spectrum - could cost a lot.
“They would have to increase their taxes by 47 percent to serve only about 10 percent of their students,” Jeter said, referring to property taxes.
Jeter said the bill would allow the towns to bring in a for-profit partner for funding, something current law prohibits. For-profit organizations can only manage a charter school.
Senator Tarte said HB 514 is currently assigned to the education committee. He said he won’t bring up letting voters decide the bill’s fate in a referendum unless the committee puts it on the General Assembly’s May short session agenda.
“The interesting thing is that I have not heard one peep about it from leadership of whether it will be on the agenda. There will be little potentially controversial items brought up in the session,” Tarte said. “Our intent is - and primary responsibility is - to ensure that the budget is balanced, that we have the revenues, that the expenses are in line and go home.”
CMS officials said in the meantime, they will hold a town hall meeting on the legislation in Matthews next week so they can hear from residents.