HUNTERSVILLE – In the pursuit of possible town-controlled public schools, commissioners agree they want to keep moving. They just aren’t sure in which direction.

At the town board’s June 3 session, during a discussion initiated by Mayor John Aneralla related to a report and recommendations delivered two weeks earlier by the Huntersville Educational Options Study Commission (HEOSC), board members expressed a desire to learn more about options for addressing overcrowding before zeroing in on a specific course of action.

At the board’s May 20 meeting, HEOSC Chair Karen Bentley presented a summary of the committee’s extensive six-month investigation and evaluation of options for providing adequate public school facilities. The committee and its research effort resulted from Huntersville being one of four Mecklenburg County towns (joining Cornelius, Matthews and Mint Hill) given authority by 2018 N.C. General Assembly legislation to open and operate municipal charter schools.

Formed in October, the committee was charged with analyzing options to meet current and future public school needs. In her presentation, Bentley said the committee determined independence from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the establishment of a separate school district serving the north Mecklenburg/Lake Norman area was the best long-range solution.

But noting the “heavy lift” and political uncertainties of that scenario, the committee also encouraged a shorter-term focus on opening a municipal charter school or partnering with an existing charter to provide classroom space.

In his comments opening the June 3 discussion, Aneralla referenced long-running frustration about CMS response to growth and school capacity concerns in the northern part of the county – as well as proposed uses for $922 million from a 2017 county school bond package showing minimal CMS investments in north Mecklenburg – among the reasons for pursuing other options.

Acknowledging starting a new school district “would be a long haul,” Aneralla proposed initiating efforts to establish a nonprofit organization as a step toward opening a municipal charter school.

“It could take six days, six months or a year,” Aneralla said about the process of learning what’s needed to create a school-managing nonprofit.

And referencing design work on long-planned transportation improvements now scheduled to begin because commissioners agreed to put reserve funds to use, Aneralla added, “If we don’t do it now, it will be like the road projects. If you’re not ‘shovel ready,’ you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Same book, different pages

Commissioners were unanimous in support of information gathering, but not necessarily  focused on the nonprofit aspect.

“There is a need to look at all recommendations,” Commissioner Nick Walsh said, “but I don’t think we’re at any point to create a nonprofit.”

Walsh added that he didn’t think “anyone is happy” with the current school situation, but added, “I don’t hear anyone saying, ‘Hey Huntersville, get in the charter school business.’”

Commissioner Brian Hines said the board should be proactive and look at “a combination of their (HEOSC) recommendations.” And he said he was specifically interested in an HEOSC-introduced idea of the town being a type of “incubator” to attract and encourage charter school development.

Commissioner Mark Gibbons also endorsed the incubator approach, but said it was also vital for the town to be proactive in obtaining information about all educational options before deciding on a specific course of action.

Commissioner Danny Phillips, saying he was “inclined to move on with the nonprofit” idea, still emphasized it would be important to “know all the details of how it works” before deciding.

Commissioner Melinda Bales, Huntersville’s representative on a committee created to improve communications between CMS and municipalities, acknowledged the HEOSC’s recommendation for a smaller school system as “the number one solution.”

But she also stressed – and Aneralla and each commissioner, in various tones, agreed – that continued conversations with CMS to address concerns are important.

“They are not going anywhere,” Bales said.

She endorsed a “multi-pronged” approach to evaluate all options, describing the work as “investigative” and not focused on a single objective like creating a nonprofit.

Her suggestion, combined with views expressed by all board members, led to Commissioner Dan Boone’s unanimously approved motion calling for a comprehensive collection of information about all available options.

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