School Districts Too Big or Too Small? N.C. Lawmakers Want to Study the Issue

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Amid arguments about whether it could lead to racial segregation, the state Senate voted Wednesday night to study what’s the appropriate size for school districts and to look at ways to break up and merge school systems.

The House had passed a bill that called for forming a legislative study committee to look into whether legislation should be introduced to break up previously merged large school districts. An amended version passed 34-11 by the Senate would expand the committee’s mission to look at determining whether there’s an appropriate size for school systems while also studying how to break up and merge districts.

“There is a statewide issue of knowing the answer to the question what is the appropriate size of an LEA (local educational agency),” said Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican who proposed the amendment. “I know that the conclusions that a study like this might come to might have particular ramifications.”

Opponents of House Bill 704 said it was an effort to lay the groundwork for breaking up the Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school systems, the two largest in North Carolina. Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from Nash County, said the “elephant in the room” is how many of the state’s school systems were the results of mergers to racially integrate schools.

“I’m concerned that this is a set-up for trying to resegregate schools or bringing out folks who would want to resegregate schools without saying it as such,” Bryant said.

But Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said that after years of talking about whether the district is too big it’s time to get people to the table.

“It’s time to get serious about it and discuss the issues,” he said.

The bill goes back to the House to see whether members will support the Senate’s changes. Barefoot said he had introduced his amendment after talking with Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors.

Many transplants to North Carolina are used to individual towns running their own small school systems. In contrast, most school systems in North Carolina are county-based.

Over the years, many school systems in the state merged to try to save money and to integrate schools. The state went from 167 school districts in the 1960s to 115 now.

The bill’s two other primary sponsors are Rep. John Bradford of Mecklenburg County and Rep. Chris Malone of Wake County. All three Republican legislators represent counties where there’s been support from some suburban residents to break up their large school districts.

Wake County is the nation’s 15th largest school system with 159,549 students. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system is the nation’s 18th largest system with 147,000 students.

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In Wake, some suburban residents who have voiced frustration over student assignment say breaking up the district would make sense, partly because more students could attend schools closer to their homes. Parents have also pointed to how all schools may be closed if just a small portion of the county has poor road conditions due to inclement weather.

Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, warned supporters of the bill who come from smaller school districts that the committee could recommend that their systems be merged.

“As you aim at this district (Wake County) and the Mecklenburg district, make sure that you’re putting cover around your own,” he said.

Related Video

In this report for PBS NewsHour, John Tulenko of Education Week profiles a northern region of Vermont where residents are sharply divided on whether to combine its five school districts:

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