CMS concerned over ownership of school facilities

Some local education officials are worried a North Carolina bill could change the way Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools handles school facilities and designs.

Senate Bill 236 would authorize counties to assume responsibility for construction, improvement, ownership and acquisition of public school property, according to the bill’s text. Currently, North Carolina counties pay for new school buildings and then turn over facilities to school systems, which then take on ownership. When a decision is made by school boards to sell district facilities, they are first required to offer facilities back to county officials.

Some argue that a change needs to be made as current law has county taxpayers purchasing the same property twice.

“I have no problems with adjusting that part of the law,” Tim Morgan, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education vice chair, said. “That’s an easy legislative fix. But in reality, the bill allows counties to take ownership of all existing school properties.”

And that’s a problem, Morgan said, adding the county would also then dictate the use of the facilities during out-of-school hours, such as before and after school and on weekends. Currently, many local organizations, such as churches, Boy Scout troops and various rec leagues, use school facilities and athletic fields for their programs. If the bill passes, then all organizations would have to renegotiate with the county on the use of school facilities.

The bill, which manifested out of disagreements between Wake County commissioners and the district’s Board of Education, Morgan said, as currently written also would not require county commissioners to consult with school boards about designs of schools, “essentially taking school boards out of the equation,” Morgan said, and requires mediation between both political parties.

“I would argue that if there is a need for any potential mediation between two political bodies, then lawmakers should go back and look at it again,” Morgan said. “But counties are saying, ‘we pay for schools, we should own them.’”

The bill currently sits in a state legislature committee, and has not yet been acted on, Morgan said. CMS Board of Education recently held a conference about the bill.

“It is something we have had conversations with board members and intergovernmental relations committees about,” Morgan said, “and yeah, there are concerns
from the staff and the board.”

One concern is that a district as large as CMS could be more than Mecklenburg County commissioners could handle. The district’s board of education currently has a track record of building schools on time and often under budget, Morgan said.

If the bill becomes law, the county would be taking on a large amount of new space to manage.

Under current text of the bill, if passed, county commission could unilaterally move forward and take control of school facilities, Morgan said.

“We have been told that there are several (Mecklenburg County commissioners) who have expressed an interest in at least looking at it,” Morgan said.

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