Consolidate or deconsolidate? That’s the question. Few would dispute that the trend in public education over the last 30 years has been toward the consolidation of county and city school systems. And it’s clear a good many power brokers in Raleigh want that trend to continue.
In early May, Senate leaders backed off a plan in their proposed state budget to pay for only one school district administration per county. The funding restriction was aimed at encouraging the 11 remaining counties with separate city and county school districts to consolidate them into one district, which would save $12 million in the state budget.
The plan was proposed two years after the N.C. Board of Education said it would not pursue the merger of the city school districts with county districts, saying there was no indication such a move would save money.
Under the funding limit that was removed from the budget, districts that would be deconsolidated in Mecklenburg County would have to share administration funding for a single district.
But the plan could also be seen by many as a message to residents of Mecklenburg County: Deconsolidation of the city-county school system won’t be easy.
But the budget plan wasn’t the first message legislators have sent. In April, a bill was killed in committee that would pave the way toward the deconsolidation of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
The bill was introduced by Reps. John Rhodes and Jim Gulley, both Republicans of Mecklenburg County. Entitled the Mecklenburg Education Freedom Act, it’s described as an “act to provide for education freedom for students, parents, and teachers in Meckenburg County by providing for the Mecklenburg County school administrative unit to be separated into multiple administrative units.”
Basically, the bill would have set up a referendum in November. A “For” vote would have divided the Mecklenburg County Schools into smaller administrative units on July 1, 2006. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education would have been abolished in the process. There would have been no 2005 election for the school board, and the terms of current members would have been extended until new boards of education would have been elected under the plan.
A petition filed to introduce the bill points out that when Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools consolidated in 1960, the system had fewer than 60,000 enrolled students. Today, the system has more than 121,000 students, with enrollment expected to exceed 170,000 students by 2014.
The incredible growth has rendered the central administration incapable of responding to the concerns of parents in north Mecklenburg County.
“Whereas many citizens believe Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools is an unnecessarily large organization; that its size has made it unresponsive to the needs of families who generally seek local ownership, less bureaucracy and more control over their children’s lives,” the petition reads.
But while the bill failed, it nevertheless sparked public debate over school deconsolidation. The issue has become hot as school systems around the state grow exponentially, and many legislators and parents believe control is getting away from school boards and administrative units.
In a phone interview, Rhodes said the issue is definitely not going away.
“The people in my district spoke very clearly and very loudly that they wanted to break away from the Charlotte- Mecklenburg school system,” he said. “We’ve already had the citizens of Mecklenburg County absolutely come out in droves in favor of deconsolidation, wanting their school systems to be smaller, more efficient, safer. “They’re tired of the status quo. But when we brought the issue to Raleigh, they would have nothing to do with it.
“Is deconsolidation the best way to go? I don’t know. But let’s at least have the discussion. And at least let the citizens decide what they want to do,” Rhodes said.
But Rhodes admits that deconsolidation faces a tough battle against what he calls “the good-old boy network between the education bureaucracy and the leaders in the General Assembly.”
“An education bureaucrat will protect his establishment, their territory, their power at any cost,” Rhodes said. “This issue is not going away, and they’d better just go ahead and deal with that fact. They can continue to defend a sinking ship as long as they want to, but it’s not going away.”
Unfortunately, citizens of North Mecklenburg have another enemy in their battle for deconsolidation: the mainstream media.
Despite its own poll that showed 47 percent of residents supported a proposal to break CMS into smaller districts while 39 percent opposed it, The Charlotte Observer wrote in an editorial that deconsolidation is not “sound public policy for a metro region such as Mecklenburg. Indeed, metro areas in which small, independent suburban districts surround a center-city district almost always feature a center-city district that serves predominantly low-income racial minorities, struggles for money and produces unacceptably low academic results. That’s not a recipe for a healthy urban region, even if the residents of the affluent, cozy suburban districts are quite happy.”
About 150 miles up Interstate 85-40 is Mecklenburg’s mirror image. Orange County is still split into two school systems, with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools receiving $12 million more in funding than county schools through a special schools tax inside the town limits.
The $25,000 taxpayer-funded study led by Madeline Grumet of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education, concluded that this inequity in funding was a major factor in the achievement gap between students in county and city schools.
While the report didn’t explicitly recommend merging the two systems, it did recommend increased access to high school courses across the district, development of shared nomenclature, and increased professional development across districts.
The report was further impetus on a process that has been in discussion since the late 1980s. But the ire of parents had already been raised when Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools Superintendent Neil Pedersen presented a report to County Manager John Link outlining the logistics of consolidation.
Orange County schools are under capacity and Chapel Hill-Carrboro are over capacity, so students, mostly in the northern corridor of the city school district, would be shifted to county schools to fill classroom space.
In the report, Pedersen estimated that, between the 2005-2006 and 2013-2014 school years, 1,348 elementary school students, 2,500 middle school students and 2,000 high school students would be shifted from city schools to county schools.
The issue, at least for now, is on hold until the fall, said Orange County Commission Chairman Moses Carey. While Carey has been a vocal proponent of merger, Vice Chairman Barry Jacobs has remained relatively quiet.
In a phone interview, Jacobs admitted that the disparity in funding between Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro was an issue. Resources could be better shared among the districts, he said. But merger might not be the answer.
“The more I learn, the less I think it’s necessary. I don’t see it as a social-justice issue where one group of kids is being deprived of opportunity. There’s a difference between equity and equal funding. I think people get hung up on money sometimes to the exclusion of reason,” Jacobs said.
Consolidation of school systems has been a hot topic since 2003, when a decision by the N.C. Court of Appeals allowed the merger of the Kings Mountain School District into Cleveland County Schools, along with Shelby City Schools.
The Kings Mountain Board of Education, individual Kings Mountain board members, and parents of children attending Kings Mountain schools challenged the merger, arguing that the district operated in two counties, Cleveland and Gaston. Therefore, both county commissions would have to approve the merger, and the Gaston County Commission had not done so.
Though the Kings Mountain municipal boundaries extend into Gaston County, and the district does serve children there, the court ruled there was no evidence that the Kings Mountain school district extended across county lines.
As the year progresses, it appears as though all the attention surrounding consolidation and deconsolidation will be focused on Mecklenburg and Orange counties. That’s because the state’s other large school systems seem content where they are, whether it be with a city-county split or as a geographically expansive school district with one central office.
Buncombe County has kicked around merging county schools with Asheville City Schools for years, but there’s no significant movement. On the other side, a movement to deconsolidate Wake County Schools was short-lived, according to The Charlotte Observer.
Nor is there a movement to deconsolidate Guilford County Schools, which became the state’s third-largest district with the 1992 merger of High Point and Greensboro city schools with county schools.
In an e-mail message, Guilford school board member Kris Cooke said there was no deconsolidation movement “that I know of.”
Still, Cooke said, “There are still individuals that believe consolidation has been the downfall of this school system and it is too large. Still, we continue to make progress in achievements and academics.”
Sam Hieb is a contributing editor for Carolina Journal.