Charlotte parents seem to be overwhelmingly in favor of neighborhood schools, based on results of a recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools survey. It’s pretty easy to understand why.
But others have been taking it a step farther, with Mint Hill and Matthews officials going so far as to threaten a split within the school district if parents don’t get to send their kids to their school of choice.
In theory, neighborhood school districts don’t sound like a bad idea. After all, Mecklenburg County is massive. But there’s a reason school districts in North Carolina are organized by county — and why unraveling this system would have serious repercussions.
Why other states have more school districts
When I first moved to North Carolina eight and a half years ago, I was confused that most everywhere only had one county school district. I grew up in a Cincinnati suburb, where my school district only had two high schools, one middle school and six elementary schools.
My home county — Hamilton — is pretty comparable to Mecklenburg. Hamilton has more than 807,000 people and Mecklenburg just over 1 million, based on 2015 U.S. Census estimates.
But Hamilton County has 23 school districts. Yes, 23. (See map above if you’re wondering how this looks.) This is partly thanks to highly decentralized townships and city governments and partly thanks to historical factors.
Now, surely you’re thinking, “Mecklenburg doesn’t want to go that far. We only want a few school districts.”
One problem is once you start subdividing, where do you stop? If you think people are getting ugly about shifting some school boundary lines, what would it do to our community to split into south, central and north school districts? Would a south school district that includes Matthews be willing to accept poorer children in Steele Creek and Pineville? (Hard to argue they aren’t “south.”) Or would they try to shift those kids into a central district?
The real issue is money
There are some benefits to neighborhood school districts. Ohio school districts — and other northern states — have an ace up their sleeve that a potentially subdivided Mecklenburg doesn’t.
Where I come from, school districts have the ability to call for tax levies to ask for school improvements and general operating expenditures directly from the people. In fact, there’s even such a thing as a school district income tax. That gives school boards a lot of control over spending and planning.
When my school district back home wanted to build a new middle school, it went straight to township voters for a levy that raised property taxes. (The downside is voters can grow weary of requests for tax increases — even when truly needed. It took far too long for voters to approve money to help my dilapidated high school.)
In Charlotte, Mecklenburg County pays for school construction and improvements. The school district can call for a bond that lists all the renovation projects and new buildings it wants to complete, but county commissioners have to agree to put the bond on the ballot.
Even if the bond approved, school board members don’t have much control over their budget. Each year they have to go to the county commissioners with new requests for how much money they want and the projects they want that money to go toward.
It’s theoretically possible that a new set of county commissioners could drastically reduce a school district’s budget any given year. School boards don’t control their own destiny. They rely each year on a separate set of politicians to support their goals.
Sure, Matthews, as its own political entity, could combine forces with Mint Hill and raise its taxes to supplement money that comes from Mecklenburg County for its students. But that would take a lot of political will.
Boundary issues would still reign
Say Matthews officials decide that going for a broad “South” district isn’t achievable but still want to partner with Mint Hill. Putting all Matthews and Mint Hill students in one school district has a nice ring to it.
There would still be a lot of tough decisions to make. For instance, a number of students who live in Matthews actually attend school at Jay M. Robinson Middle School — in Charlotte.
Mint Hill is home to Rocky River High School, but many of its residents actually attend Independence High School — in, you guessed it, Charlotte. (Matthews is home to Butler High School.)
There’s also a weird ring that would be created by a Matthews-Mint Hill school district that includes the county’s unincorporated area. Would these students wind up in Matthews-Mint Hill or be bused across another school district back to CMS?
Determining where lines end and begin isn’t so simple.
[Agenda story: The most gerrymandered school districts in Charlotte]
Diversity does matter
I’ve heard Southern friends say the North is more segregated than the South, and there’s an element of truth to that. County school systems exist in the South because of desegregation.
In Hamilton County, it’s Cincinnati Public Schools, located within the relatively small Cincinnati city limits, that is known for low achievement and a concentration of high-poverty schools. It has about three-quarters minority students, and 72 percent “economically disadvantaged.” Compare that to my home district, which is 90 percent white.
I only knew a handful of minority students growing up — certainly not enough to truly appreciate diversity. I didn’t have friends who could clue me into what different races faced until college.
I love that my son attends a CMS school that is split 50-50 between white and minority students. His kindergarten class picture depicts the world as it is much more accurately than my own did.
As humans, we tend to fear what we don’t know. I want my child exposed to an array of thoughts and people as he grows. Splitting CMS into pieces would almost inevitably result in at least one school district that isn’t very diverse. Our children do lose with this reality.
There’s a sane and reasonable way to start having these conversations in Charlotte. Standing together for our children — not splitting apart — would be a good way to start.
Cover image via Phil Roeder (Flickr)