Some state legislators want to look at how to split North Carolina school systems into smaller districts, a preliminary step that could make it possible to break up large systems such as Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
House Bill 704 filed this week would create a joint legislative study committee to look into whether legislation should be introduced to allow for the breakup of previously merged school systems. The committee would also consider how to divide school districts and whether a local referendum or petition would be needed before a district could be split.
Many transplants to North Carolina are used to individual towns running their own small school systems. In contrast, most school systems in North Carolina are county-based.
Over the years, many school systems in the state merged to try to save money and to integrate schools. The state went from 167 school districts in the 1960s to 115 now.
“Over the past few decades, the emphasis in North Carolina has been merging small school systems to form big ones,” Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said Wednesday. “The idea was economies of scale would improve education in North Carolina.
“Now there’s a concern there may be diseconomies of scale in the big systems. They may be too large.”
Brawley said the study committee is needed because while state law lays out how to merge school systems, it doesn’t cover the process for how to break systems up.
Tim Lavallee, vice president of the WakeEd Partnership, a business-backed group that supports Wake schools, questioned the need for the legislation.
“If a school district wanted to seek to divide itself into smaller districts with the permission of the General Assembly, they could do that through filing a bill with one of their legislators,” he said. “There doesn’t need to be a structure coming from the state to break up a large district.”
The bill’s two other primary sponsors, both Republicans, are Rep. John Bradford of Mecklenburg and Rep. Chris Malone of Wake. Bradford, Brawley and Malone all represent counties where there’s been support from some residents to break up their large school districts.
Malone said he has wanted to study the idea of what a smaller district might look like since he served on the Wake school board from 2009 to 2012. He said he agreed to sponsor the bill because it’s only calling for a study and any changes wouldn’t come for a couple of years.
“If I thought anything would happen that would be disadvantageous to Wake County, I would vote against it in a heartbeat,” Malone said. “If they come up with something that’s viable and worthwhile, that would be fantastic.”
In Mecklenburg, suburban residents who get frustrated with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have often talked about splitting the county into smaller districts.
In 2005, hundreds of people in Mecklenburg’s north and south suburbs crowded meetings to talk about splitting. A school board member and a county commissioner went to Raleigh to pitch the secession plan, but members of the House education committee refused to hear them and overwhelmingly voted down a bill that would have let Mecklenburg voters weigh in.
Last year, faced with uncertainty over CMS student assignment, Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor formed an education task force that talked about trying to break off from the countywide district. But this spring the task force recommended exploring municipal charter schools rather than trying to secede.
Matthews is a town of about 30,000 people southeast of Charlotte.
In Wake, some suburban residents who have voiced frustration over student assignment say breaking up the district would make sense, partly because more students could attend schools closer to their homes. Wake is the nation’s 15th largest school district with 159,000 students.
“I’d much prefer to be one of the best school districts in the country than one of the biggest, and we’ll never get there being as large as we are with the bureaucracy as large as it is,” said former Wake school board member Ron Margiotta.
In 2010, when he was board chairman, Margiotta had publicly talked about breaking Wake up. But the idea didn’t go any further since it would have required approval in the state legislature, which was then under Democratic control.
Diversity, pooling resources
Wake and Raleigh City schools merged in 1976. School and community leaders argued a merger would help Raleigh’s economy and schools, which were seeing an increase in African-American enrollment as more white families opted for the county district.
Wake voters overwhelmingly opposed the merger in a non-binding referendum in 1973. But the General Assembly passed the merger resolution anyway.
School board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said the merger has made Wake a healthier district by allowing the community to pool its resources. She said the unified district has also provided diversity to schools.
“Splitting up a unified district breaks up your ability to leverage all of your resources,” she said.
But Malone, the state legislator, said some parts of Wake consider themselves red-headed stepchildren who feel they get less than the rest of the district. He said the new study could shine attention on those issues and determine at what stage a school system gets too big, if ever.
Brawley said the bill would study under what circumstances large school systems should be broken up and how to do it in a way that’s fair and improves educational outcomes for all students.
The committee is supposed to make a final report by May 1, 2018.
“We’re not setting out with the idea of breaking up any particular system,” Brawley said. “But it’s to have the discussion on how big a school system should be.”
The bill has been referred to the House education committee, whose leaders Brawley says are willing to act on the legislation. Malone said that the bill has been discussed in the House Republican Caucus and that there’s broad support to pass it on to the Senate.
“I’m not looking to shake a tree,” Malone said. “I want to follow it down the road and see if it will come to a better place.”
Ann Doss Helms of the Charlotte Observer contributed.