Over the years, members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board have taken flak for a variety of good reasons.
Scoring a huge profit on a land development deal generally hasn’t been one of them.
But last week, some Mecklenburg County commissioners came after them for just that reason. The commissioners said they were surprised to learn that the Ballantyne land the county bought on the school board’s behalf a decade ago for $4.1 million was being sold to a private homebuilder for $6 million.
Commissioner Jim Puckett suggested that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had dipped its toe in the risky world of real estate speculation.
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“CMS is getting into the development business,” he said. “That’s just not what they need to be doing … It’s just a bad precedent and probably shouldn’t happen again.”
If that’s the case, then he’s right. The school board needn’t get any grand ideas about trying its luck in the up-and-down real estate development sector. The school board should buy and sell property solely in support of educational goals, not to boost the school system’s bottom line.
But given the history of often-tense relations between our county commissioners and school board members, a discerning nostril might catch a whiff of something else at work. A kind of public sector sibling rivalry, perhaps?
After all, the money from the sale of the 32 acres surrounding Ballantyne Elementary School goes back to CMS, not to the county.
This despite the fact that the county bought the land on CMS’s behalf in 2005. And despite the fact that, as we are reminded every year at budget time, the county commissioners sit in judgment over CMS’s annual budget requests.
Could it be that the commissioners’ very grown-up concerns about public sector officials speculating in real estate might have been joined by some less-mature impulses that told them their political cousins had made them unwitting collaborators in some slick money-making maneuver?
Even if that did figure into their criticism, it would be understandable. Nobody likes getting a fast one pulled on them.
But is that really what happened?
Not at all, says Guy Chamberlain, the retired CMS associate superintendent who was in charge of construction back when the land deal went down.
Chamberlain told the editorial board Friday that CMS knew it needed land in Ballantyne for a new elementary school, and parcels were scarce.
The best available parcel was too big. And further complicating things, it was zoned for dense residential development.
When CMS approached, the developer who owned the property said there would be no subdividing it – take all or take nothing. CMS took the deal. With a deadline looming to get the school open, CMS needed to avoid a lengthy rezoning. To bypass it, the planning staff required CMS to put in the streets and sewers, he recalled.
In other words, he was saying, CMS didn’t hatch a plan to speculate on land. That’s just how things worked out as they rushed to open a much-needed school.
But if the commissioners remain in a question-asking mood, here’s one CMS needs to answer: With Ballantyne Elementary already crowded, where are all these new students supposed to go?