HUNTERSVILLE – After an hour-long public comment session and statements of support from the mayor and each commissioner, the Huntersville town board voted unanimously on May 7 to seek the authority to operate its own charter schools.
A few miles away – acting on an item added to the agenda during their meeting – Cornelius town board members took the same action by a 3-1 vote, with Commissioner Thurman Ross opposed and Commissioner Kurt Naas absent.
The decisions align the towns with fellow Mecklenburg County municipalities Matthews and Mint Hill in support of North Carolina House Bill 514. Passage of HB514, approved by the House last year and awaiting N.C. Senate consideration, would give the towns the ability to create and operate charter schools.
At both local meetings, officials said being included in the HB514 provisions could provide an alternative way to address local school needs beyond what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) provides. But they emphasized they viewed it as a possibility, not a declaration of intent.
“This is not an action, it’s an option,” Huntersville Commissioner Melinda Bales said, echoing statements made by fellow commissioners.
In Cornelius, Mayor Woody Washam said consideration of the issue was not an indication of unhappiness with CMS, and he and Commissioner Dave Gilroy each expressed support for the schools in town. But both said joining the HB514 effort was a way to make sure there was opportunity for the future if the need arose.
"I'm a big fan of CMS," Gilroy said. "But I also believe in choice and competition and think charter schools are wonderful and so are private. I look at this as creating flexibility."
In Huntersville, Mayor John Aneralla opened the discussion referencing what he described as 20 years of CMS failing to address school needs in north Mecklenburg. “You have to think about this in context of what has been going on,” he said.
He then pointed out the $922 million county-wide school bond referendum approved by voters last fall that includes plans for only one new school in Huntersville – a K-8 language immersion school at the old J.M. Alexander School site.
Aneralla said he viewed participation in the bill as a pathway to potential action.
“It allows us to do something,” he said, “but it doesn’t require us to do anything.”
Support and concern
During the public comment portion of the Huntersville meeting, several people voiced support for HB514, including current Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners District 1 Representative Jim Puckett and his predecessor, Karen Bentley. But others expressed uncertainty. Some wondered why the board was “rushing” the decision, and town residents John Foster and Anthony Lowe both spoke against the measure.
Foster said the town should work with CMS to improve local schools. And Lowe said charter schools are not required to provide many of the services (like transportation) public schools offer, which, combined with their locations, could lead to a societal gap.
“Schools close to homes in segregated communities,” he told commissioners, “are segregated schools.”
Charles Jeter, a former Huntersville commissioner and state legislator who is now governmental relations coordinator and policy administrator for CMS, said there are other significant factors to consider.
Jeter, who sent an email to Huntersville commissioners on May 3 urging them to not join the HB514 effort, said financial implications – Ross’ stated reason for opposing the measure in Cornelius – are just one unknown.
“The legislation clearly states that if a town creates its own charter school, all employees of the school shall – shall – be deemed employees of the town,” Jeter said. “That means salaries, benefits, pensions, everything, paid for by the town’s taxpayers.”
Jeter said he also disagreed with comments made at Monday’s meeting suggesting CMS would bus students to schools far from their homes. And he said uncertainties of the legislation should have been enough to convince commissioners to delay a decision.
“I asked them to wait,” he said. “I said I’d meet with them and talk about details of the legislation so they would have a better understanding of what it means.”
Jeter added he doesn’t know if the bill would remain in the Senate if Huntersville and Cornelius are added to the legislation, explaining it may have to return to the House if more towns are included.
“That changes the nature of it,” he said. “There are just of lot of unanswered questions.”
And he added that he doesn’t understand why Huntersville board members voted to support HB514 while simultaneously saying they didn’t plan to use its authority.
“If the idea is it gives them leverage to work with CMS, I don’t get it,” he said.
“What do you think,” he added. “Is their relationship with CMS better today than it was last night before the vote?”