The leader of a controversial state committee looking at how to break up North Carolina school districts says his group will not recommend legislation to split up any specific school systems.
A new joint legislative committee met Wednesday for the first time to study whether to recommend legislation to let previously merged school districts be divided. With Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members packing the room, Rep. Bill Brawley, the committee co-chairman, said the group isn’t targeting any specific school systems but is trying to inform the debate about whether some districts are too large.
“I have been asked numerous times if we will be generating a bill to break up ‘insert school system here,’ ” Brawley, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, said at the start of the meeting. “We do not intend to generate bills to break up specific school systems.”
Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, said she’d hold Brawley to his word because she doesn’t want the community to feel blindsided by what will come from the committee.
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“I want us to be succinct, transparent and hold to what we say we’re going to do as the purpose of this committee,” said Waddell, who had voted against the bill that created the committee.
The legislation creating the committee passed in June largely along partisan lines with most Republicans backing the legislation and most Democrats opposing it. Supporters said the state should look at what’s the most effective size for school districts while opponents said it could lead to re-segregation of schools.
There’s nothing in state law about how to split up school districts, so it would be the committee’s job to recommend what process would be used.
Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg are the state’s two biggest districts and among the 20 largest in the nation. Wake County has 160,429 students, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg has 147,000 students.
Wake County school board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said she was glad to hear the committee doesn’t plan to introduce legislation to break up the district. But she said district leaders will continue to explain why Wake should remain one school system.
“It’s still our job as a school district to make sure we give all the reasons why we should have a large district in Wake County,” said Johnson-Hostler, one of six school board members who attended the meeting. “We’re an economic driver for Wake County.”
Advocates say larger school districts can save on administrative costs, offer more services than smaller districts and make it easier to keep schools integrated. But critics say large districts can lead to less local control over education.
Over the next three meetings, the committee will discuss issues such as what would need to be addressed if large districts are broken up, the impact of school system size on student achievement and how large districts are meeting the specialized needs of students.
The committee began its work Wednesday with an overview of the state’s 115 school districts, most of which are county based. In contrast, many transplants to North Carolina are used to individual towns running their own small school systems.
There were 174 school districts in North Carolina in 1957. But the number has shrunk over the past 60 years, in part due to efforts to save money and to integrate districts.
The majority of North Carolina’s school districts have fewer than 10,000 students.
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While legislative staffers cautioned that the data required more analysis, Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg had higher passing rates on state exams than the smaller districts. Legislative staff had grouped the 115 school districts into eight groups with Wake and CMS being their own separate group.
But Wake and CMS also had the lowest percentage of schools meeting or exceeding academic growth targets on state exams compared to the smaller districts in the other seven groups.
Brawley said it was odd that Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg performed at the top on one measure but at the bottom of the other.
“The idea here is to follow the data and see where it leads us,” he said.
Committee members were also told Wednesday it could cost the state more money if there are additional school districts.
“Taking the same number of students and dividing them across more school districts will increase the cost to the state in these areas if these formulas remained intact,” said Eric Moore, an analyst for the General Assembly’s fiscal research division.
Brawley said there are a lot of opinions but not many facts on whether North Carolina’s school systems are too large. He said the group will carefully study the issues over the next few months before issuing a report by May 1.
“The intent of this committee is not to take precipitate action,” he said. “This is a process that needs to be examined deliberatively and actions that are taken in the future need to be based upon fact and not opinion.”
T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui