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Legislator: Panel Won't Propose Splitting Certain School Districts

The entrance to the Wake County Public Schools administration office.
Brian Batista
The entrance to the Wake County Public Schools administration office.

A legislative committee studying the pros and cons for students and local governance of splitting up North Carolina school districts won't recommend breaking up specific school systems, a panel leader said Wednesday at its first meeting.The General Assembly approved a law last year creating a committee to study the potential division of districts and report back to the full legislature this spring.

After several decades since the 1950s of city-county district mergers in the name of racial equity or fiscal and governing efficiency, some leaders and parents have suggested some of the state's 115 districts are too big and fail to meet the needs of some students.

Often mentioned in the discussion are the Wake County school system, with 160,000 students, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, with 147,000 students. Their enrollments rank in the top 20 districts nationwide. A dozen districts currently have more than 25,000 students, according to data presented to the committee. Nearly all of the 15 remaining municipal school districts have fewer than 5,000 students. Hyde County Schools is the smallest district with only 578 students.

Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican and committee co-chairman, said there are no plans to propose bills targeting the breakup of certain systems. And there might not even be time to propose legislation before a May 1 deadline to generate a procedure whereby a district could deconsolidate, he said.

There is currently no law in place laying out rules for such divisions.

"There are debates in several counties on whether the school systems are too large and whether or not they should be broken up," Brawley said. "Those debates tend to go primarily on the basis of opinion, not fact. The purpose of this committee is to study that issue and generate some facts to inform the debate as it goes forward."

Supporters of some deconsolidation say it would promote local autonomy and specialized learning. Critics are worried splitting districts could lead to the resegregation of the public schools or divide districts between rich and poor populations.

General Assembly staff presented at Wednesday's meeting information on school district data and structures, along with how districts are funded. One presentation suggested that deconsolidating districts would require more state funds for central office administration, technical education and education for children with disabilities or limited English proficiency.

"Autonomy would certainly come at a cost, and is that a cost that both the state and citizens are willing to bear in order to have smaller districts?" Wake County Board of Education member Keith Sutton said after the meeting. Sutton said while the threat of splitting districts into racially-divided units may be of less concern in affluent areas, the risk of resgegration remains real in the state.

The presentations also compared to North Carolina with other states. North Carolina had the fewest number of local districts among six other states with similar enrollment levels.

Presenters also looked at academic outcomes in North Carolina based on district size, but those results did not show any conclusive trends.

Liz Schlemmer contributed to this report.  

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