Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Suburban secession talk returns

A group of north and south suburban residents have launched a petition asking the state legislature to carve Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools into three districts: North, south and central.

The group calling itself SPARK Educational Performances unveiled the plan at a Tuesday night meeting of frustrated south suburbanites that drew about 30 people to talk about schools and other issues. Tom Davis, a Huntersville resident who has served on several education advisory boards and is now running for the state House, made the pitch.

"Everybody's got burning issues with CMS," he said. He was joined by Christine Mast,  a CMS parent from Huntersville who has been vocal about CMS issues recently,  and Scott Babbidge, a self-described "south Mecklenburg troublemaker" who,  like Davis,  filed to run for school board last year but later withdrew.

The night before,  more than 100 people came to the Matthews Town Hall to meet newly appointed District 6 school board member Amelia Stinson-Wesley.  Many of them voiced a sense that suburban schools are being shortchanged in a system that spends more on high-poverty center city schools, those who attended say.

Seven years ago,  suburban frustrations led to "split the district" rallies that drew hundreds.  A specific proposal never emerged,  though,  and the state legislature showed no interest in breaking up CMS.

It remains to be seen whether the latest effort will spark the same emotional energy,  let alone gain  practical traction.  (As of 2:30 p.m., this post had about 2,000 page views and 58 people had signed the petition, so it appears there's more interest than buy-in at this stage.)  But Davis said the Republican-dominated legislature will be more receptive to a pitch based on cost savings and local buy-in.

The petition calls for the north district to encompass Huntersville,  Cornelius,  Davidson and the Mountain Island community.  The south district would stretch from Steele Creek in the southwest to Mint Hill in the southeast,  covering territory south of I-485.  Central would cover the territory inside 485 -- a swath that includes the district's highest-poverty schools,  where CMS spends far more per pupil than it does in large suburban schools.

Tim Timmerman,  organizer of the South Mecklenburg Alliance of Responsible Taxpayers (SMART), showed off the group's logo,  a taxpayer shoveling money down "a black hole called center city."  Davis agreed suburban taxpayers pump too much into urban schools,  but noted that  "the big buildings uptown"  also provide a healthy chunk of the Mecklenburg County tax base.

Davis also referred to the question of  "diversity, the NAACP,  all the other stuff,"  and noted that most of the 32 percent of CMS students who are white are concentrated in the north and south suburbs.  A white Ballantyne resident,  who declined to give her name afterward,  talked about "people being bused all over freakin' creation,"  and said black students are crowding into suburban schools in hopes of getting a better education while white families flee to private schools "because they don't like the intrusion of gangs and drugs that's coming out of these other areas."

But both said afterward race isn't motivating the talk of suburban districts.  Davis said the county's six townships deserve the chance to take charge of their schools and have their neighbors make decisions about taxation.  The Ballantyne woman,  who said she has no children,  said it's about protecting neighborhood schools where parent involvement is stronger.  "It's got nothing to do with race. It's all down to parents,"  she said.  And if lower-income parents can't get as involved,  that's not her problem:  "I'm not paying to raise your kids."

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