Maybe Charlotte’s school district should keep developing subdivisions

Maybe Charlotte’s school district should keep developing subdivisions
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The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board is about to make a neat little bundle of money on Ballantyne real estate — and I kind of like it.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is about to sell a big chunk of property around Ballantyne Elementary to Meritage Homes for $6 million. The school will remain in the center of the property, with 88 lots encircling it. The school board will chalk up a profit of roughly $1.7 million on the deal that will be used to pay for other capital projects.

The last time I took a look at a local government real estate play, it didn’t turn out so hot for the taxpayer. And to be honest, this deal was kind of messed up, too. Gambling with public money makes me more than a little uneasy. But there’s an element of this concept that I like.

By buying and building in future growth areas, the school board and county have a chance to help create the more equitable community they always talk about wanting to have.

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Ballantyne-Lots-Map

Image via Mecklenburg County

How did this even happen?

The details of how all that prime real estate came to be in the school board’s hands are kind of weird.

The 39 acres of land were first purchased in August 2005 for about $4.3 million, destined to be the site of a new elementary school relieving overcrowding at nearby schools. Developer KB Homes had just rezoned the land for a subdivision of about 160 homes before selling it, and CMS had an innovative system in mind to construct and finance development on the property.

providence-road-west-elementary-plans

A developer would build 88 homes and the school — and CMS would rent the school on a long-term lease. Then-Superintendent Peter Gorman touted it to the business community as a way to see if the private sector could build schools cheaper and better than local government. The City Council loved it.

“I think the school board has taken a real leap into the future, and I think this has a lot of promise for getting our inadequate school building situation solved,” city councilwoman Susan Burgess told school system staff at a 2006 meeting, according to minutes.

Of course, as we now know, it didn’t work out. The school district really wanted the campus open by 2008 and administrators determined within a year that this public-private partnership was (1) not fiscally feasible and (2) not possible to be done in time. So they scrapped it and went with a more traditional financing method.

The school system did, however, build neighborhood roads and extend water and sewer service. Everything is shovel ready.

Why Charlotte should do this again

This all came up at the county commissioners meeting the other night. They don’t like it for a number of reasons. The county is generally responsible for buying all the land CMS needs, but they won’t get to share in the profit. Commissioners also said they’re not crazy about the idea of the school district buying more land than they actually need.

Why not?

This neighborhood set-up in particular is a little unusual (drive around it and you’ll see what I mean). But I like the concept of creating a neighborhood around a school, especially in desirable area.

ballantyne-elementary

It would give our city leaders a chance to create a diverse neighborhood and quality school at the same time in a city where those two phrases so seldom overlap.

Former CMS board chairman Arthur Griffin apparently talked a lot about developing affordable housing around school campuses, and this idea could be resurrected. I haven’t heard anything about CMS requiring some affordable housing from Meritage, but I hope something happens along those lines.

Our school system remains largely segregated by income and race. This could be a way to keep the system from perpetuating itself with new schools.

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