State Politics

NC lawmakers will study how to break up large school districts

Students at Garner High School walk from modular classroom structures as they change classes on Aug. 28, 2013.
Students at Garner High School walk from modular classroom structures as they change classes on Aug. 28, 2013.

North Carolina lawmakers will study how to break up the state’s large school districts after turning down a proposal to also look at how to merge small school systems.

The state House and Senate both approved late Thursday night a bill to form a legislative study committee that would report back by May 1 whether it’s feasible to pass legislation to let previously merged school districts be divided. The committee of state lawmakers would also look at the best ways to break up school districts, including whether to require a referendum by voters.

House Bill 704 now goes to the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper after having received legislative majorities large enough to override any potential veto. Most Republican legislators were in support and most Democratic lawmakers were opposed.

The Senate tried to change the bill on Wednesday to expand the committee’s focus to include looking at determining the appropriate size for school districts. The change included having the committee study how to merge school systems as well as how to break them up.

The House rejected the Senate’s changes on Thursday. After a conference between legislators from both houses, the Senate’s language was dropped from the revised version that was approved in the evening.

The legislation comes amid questions about whether it could lead to racial segregation of schools and if it’s targeted at Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, the two largest North Carolina school systems.

Wake County is the nation’s 15th largest school system with 159,549 students. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system is the nation’s 18th largest system with 147,000 students.

The bill’s primary sponsors are Reps. Bill Brawley and John Bradford of Mecklenburg County and Rep. Chris Malone of Wake County. All three Republican legislators represent counties where there’s been support from some suburban residents to break up their school districts.

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.

“The elephant in the room is we know that these districts were merged in almost every situation out of either legal actions or other kind of actions regarding racial segregation in education,” Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from Nash County, said on the floor Wednesday.

Sen. Dan Bishop, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, said he agreed with Bryant that breaking up school districts needs to be done with caution. But he said it needs to be studied.

“I represent a district that I imagine will be of two different minds on this point perhaps, and I don’t think it’s a good reason to avoid the question, certainly not to avoid it forever,” Bishop said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui