Any efforts to break up North Carolina school districts would likely lead to lawsuits and challenges such as higher costs and fewer school choices, state education officials warned Tuesday.
State legislators who are studying how to divide school districts say they're not targeting any specific district this year but want to learn more about what issues would be involved in breaking them up. On Tuesday, representatives from the state Department of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education laid out a list of constitutional, budgeting, facilities, transportation, nutrition, legal and other challenges.
Democratic lawmakers who had opposed the creation of the legislative study committee focused on the obstacles.
"We're going to have legal issues all over the place and we're going to have more questions than we have answers for," said Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Mecklenburg County Democrat.
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But Republican legislators said they can look at having school districts share some services to save money while still operating independently after dividing them up.
"I don't think any of these (challenges) would prohibit us from going forward with looking at smaller districts that I think are probably more functional to the students," said Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Republican from Surry County who is the second-highest ranking member of the state House of Representatives.
There are 115 school districts in North Carolina operating this year, most of which are county based. Some suburban parents in Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg have lobbied lawmakers to split up those two large districts.
Nationally, at least 71 communities in 21 states have tried to break off from larger school districts since 2000, with 47 being successful, according to Brian Gywn, staff attorney and legislative analyst for the General Assembly. He told lawmakers that any potential school district breakups in North Carolina could involve constitutional issues such as whether they would lead to segregation.
School district breakups would also involve a number of legal issues, including potential changes to school assignments for some students, according to Eric Snider, attorney for the State Board of Education. Dividing up schools between multiple districts affects the ability to provide magnet schools and countywide programs.
"People will be watching and while we all hope and endeavor to make perfect plans, folks always throw darts," Snider said. " I think we could expect to see questions and legal challenges and people wanting to take advantage of different administrative processes in the courts in order to get their say."
Another potential challenge could be increased transportation costs in large districts like Wake, which has 160,000 students, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which has 147,000 students.
Wake and Charlotte use fewer school buses per student than other districts, according to Kevin Harrison, DPI section chief for transportation services.
Harrison projected that splitting Wake could require 172 to 336 more school buses at a cost of $14.6 million to $28.5 million. He said splitting CMS could require 111 to 314 more school buses at a cost of $9.4 million to $26.7 million.
Harrison said smaller districts have less buying power for things such as fuel. He said that any new smaller districts may reduce their operational costs by reducing their services with options such as longer bus routes and longer walks to bus stops for students.
But Sen. Dan Bishop, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said big districts may use up their buses faster and need them to be replaced sooner by the state.
Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican and committee co-chairman, said the numbers being used by Harrison on bus efficiency "might be misleading."
"The buses start picking up kids in my neighborhood at 6:50 and they continue to pick up kids 'till 9 o'clock," Brawley said. "So yes, they have a higher utilization. But you've got over a two-hour window when kids are leaving to go to school and they're going to more than just three schools."
Nathan Maune, an architect in DPI's school planning section, said that splitting school districts could reduce school choice. He also said that it could create "have" and "have-not" school facilities because some districts could end up with more aging facilities than others.
"Wouldn't it be something that the county commissioners would take care of in their budgets, their building budgets and construction?" replied Stevens, the legislator. "I don't want to leave anybody hanging out there, but didn't we say earlier that the counties decide and building facilities is the one thing they don't have to divide equally."
Other issues raised Tuesday from splitting districts include:
▪ Could affect ability to meet state constitutional obligation to provide students a sound, basic education;
▪ Could increase insurance costs;
▪ Could make school computer systems more susceptible to successful cyberattacks;
▪ Could increase costs and reduce efficiency in school nutrition programs.