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Report Doesn't Judge Whether Splitting Districts Makes Sense

A sign indicates a no-student drop-off zone with Wake County public school buses in the background.
Brian Batista
A sign indicates a no-student drop-off zone with Wake County public school buses in the background.

A legislative committee studying possible gains and liabilities from breaking up large public school districts completed its work Wednesday without making judgment on whether deconsolidation is ultimately good for North Carolina's students.

With little debate, the joint House-Senate panel approved a report it will pass along to the entire General Assembly as it reconvenes next month.

The study committee was commissioned last summer, following years in which local residents and parents have questioned whether some of the state's 115 districts are too big and fail to meet the needs of some students. The Wake County public schools, with 160,000 students, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, with 147,000 students, are among the top 20 districts nationwide in enrollment.

Deconsolidation proponents say splitting large districts would promote local autonomy and specialized learning. But critics are worried it would lead to resegregation of the public schools and create fiscal inefficiencies.

Since first meeting in February, committee members heard from several school district leaders, education researchers and school policy analysts and reviewed student performance data. State Department of Public Instruction officials also discussed potential challenges for school insurance, busing and nutrition expenses if a district is divided.

The draft report, approved with no dissenting votes, said while existing studies don't document a relationship between district size and educational performance, it appears smaller schools contribute to improved student performance.

While state law lays out a process by which districts could be merged, there is no method in place to split one. The report said more study would be required before proposed legislation creating such a procedure should be considered. One presentation, however, described how the Las Vegas-area school district was decentralized.

Rep. Bill Brawley of Mecklenburg County, the committee co-chairman, said after the meeting that the committee made headway on the issue of school deconsolidation. Local debates on splitting districts, he said, "are often informed by anger and opinion."

"What we have done with this committee is that we have put some facts on the table, particularly on how schools are structured and could be structured in North Carolina. Conventional wisdom is you can't break a school system apart. Well, we actually have the data in our report that you can."

Committee attendance was sparse Wednesday, and Democrat legislators at the meeting raised no opposition to the report.

Still, the state Democratic Party blasted the work, saying Republicans should drop deconsolidation efforts.

"This is a racist plan to resegregate our schools, plain and simple," party Executive Director Kimberly Reynolds said in a release. She added that many North Carolina school districts are national models of "successful racial integration and economic stability."

The committee did examine potential racial discrimination concerns, and the report said officials "should take care to ensure equality."

Brawley also said he kept to his word of staying away from proposing legislation specifically to split up the Charlotte-Mecklenburg or Wake County districts.

"I think a lot of people were building this (committee) up as a great monster for political reasons," Brawley said.

The report also highlighted places where multiple school districts could consolidate services to improve efficiencies, as well as several current innovative academic programs that improve student outcomes without the need to split districts.

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