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At Virus Epicenter, Mecklenburg Gets Shut Out From Some School COVID Aid

Meal programs, like this "grab and go" distribution at McClintock Middle School, are among approved uses for the state's COVID relief money.

The state Board of Education is handing out $25 million in COVID-19 relief money to schools using an unusual formula that shuts out Mecklenburg County. That has local lawmakers baffled and angry.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced North Carolina schools to close in March, Gov. Roy Cooper created a $50 million relief fund to pay for emergency meals and child care, sanitizing the empty schools and gearing up for remote learning.

On March 27, the state Board of Education unanimously approved a formula that distributes $25 million based on enrollment -- and the other $25 million using a never-before-seen formula that provides relief to 99 of 100 counties.

Mecklenburg is the only exception.

That makes no sense, says State Senator Natasha Marcus of Mecklenburg County. She and 13 other members of the Mecklenburg legislative delegation signed a public letter of protest this weekend.

"What kind of formula is it that excludes only one county – when, I will add, we are the county with the most number of COVID-19 cases in the state, by a lot?" Marcus asked in a Monday interview. 

As of Tuesday, Mecklenburg County accounted for 25% of the state's 3,221 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the sometimes fatal disease caused by the coronavirus.

Old Formula, New Twist

The state Board of Education said it was using the low-wealth formula to distribute the money. That formula has long been used to provide extra money to counties that don’t have a strong tax base. It takes per-capita income, property tax revenue and density to tally how much each county falls above or below the state average.

The ratings range from Robeson County, at 56% of the state average, to Mecklenburg, at 232%. Seventy-five of 115 school districts fall below the state average.

Marcus says she's familiar with that formula and doesn't object to it. She says Department of Public Instruction staff told her the COVID relief formula was "trying to get money into the hands of counties that were least able to fund COVID relief themselves."

Normally that formula excludes several wealthier counties like Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford. But that’s not how this worked.

"For whatever reason, which no one can rationally explain, they used the same formula but reapplied it in a way that's never been applied before," says Charles Jeter, a former state legislator who’s now the governmental liaison for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Instead of using the money just for counties that fell below the state average, the DPI distributed it to all counties that fall below the wealthiest county. And enrollment played a factor in the new calculation, so big counties that fell above the state average but below Mecklenburg could still get large "low-wealth" payouts.

Wake County, which has the state's largest school district, is among the top five in wealth. That meant it qualified for $1.2 million in low-wealth aid, as well as $2.6 million from the enrollment-based portion.

"Wake County alone got more low-wealth funding than 28 actual low-wealth counties combined," Jeter said.

Mecklenburg Ranks Lowest 

When the per-pupil money and the so-called low-wealth money were combined, the average COVID-19 relief payout came to $32.31 per student.

Most of the districts surrounding Mecklenburg came out a bit above average, ranging from a little over $34 per student in Iredell County to $37 in Gaston County.

Wake County landed at $23.53. 

Mecklenburg got barely over $16 per student, the lowest in the state. That’s about half the state average.

The aid formula also affects charter schools. Those schools often pull students from multiple counties, but Jeter says the COVID funding is based strictly on location.

That means Lake Norman Charter in Huntersville would get significantly less per pupil than Pine Lake Prep in southern Iredell County, even though both pull from roughly the same area.

"So it made no difference where your student body came from. Pine Lake Prep, for example, 60 percent of their student body comes from Mecklenburg County," said Jeter, who has a child at Pine Lake Prep.

Origin Remains Unclear

So who came up with this plan -- and why?

That remains unclear. The discussion of the COVID relief fund took up about about eight minutes of a two-and-a-half hour teleconference meeting March 27.  The board looked at three possible formulas.  The material posted for the public didn’t include a county-by-county spending breakdown.

But state board member Alan Duncan – a former chair of the Guilford County school board --  opened the discussion by telling members "you have received a breakout sheet as to what the distributions would be per county, and three different models have been used."

When a board member asked how the impact of the three formulas would differ by county, Duncan said that a formula based on students receiving federal lunch subsidies – used as a measure of student poverty – would benefit Mecklenburg. But he didn’t mention that the low-wealth formula he was recommending excluded Mecklenburg, or that it would provide aid to large, wealthy counties.

State Board Chair Eric Davis, a former chair of the CMS board, didn’t returned WFAE’s calls seeking an explanation.

State Board Member James Ford of Charlotte says he didn’t realize when he voted that Mecklenburg was excluded. He says the formula came from DPI, but he was never told who created it.

Ford describes the formula as well-intentioned but poorly executed.

"I think that folks were trying to be creative at the time," Ford said. "But it wasn’t deliberate or exclusionary practice intended to prevent Mecklenburg from receiving any funds – or to overlook the concentration of poverty that exists in the student population in Mecklenburg."

Won't Happen Again

Marcus says she spent Monday afternoon on a conference call with Board Chair Davis and DPI staff. She says she didn’t get all the answers, but she got one vital assurance.

"The good news is that we did get the chairman’s promise that they will not be using that formula again," she said.

That’s important because the state still has to distribute federal relief money, as well as the possibility of more state aid if the pandemic drags on. While Davis didn’t respond to specific questions about this process, he did send WFAE an email saying the federal aid should come to about $350 million. Davis says the state will take free and reduced lunch levels into account when it divvies up that money – a change he says will benefit CMS.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.