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For CMS, Pandemic Costs Collide With Tight County Budget

The CMS board convened by Zoom for Wednesday's budget work session.

Superintendent Earnest Winston told the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Wednesday that his request for a $37 million increase from the county probably isn’t realistic. 

On March 24, Winston presented a $1.6 billion budget plan that included the increase. But he told the board then that the plan had been prepared before the coronavirus swept the feet out from under the economy, when the county was projecting revenue growth.

Wednesday he reported an update from the county: "They have shared with us, as a result of the impact they’re experiencing and anticipating, that we should expect a flat budget."

Board Chair Elyse Dashew says "flat" actually means massive cuts, because more than half of Winston’s proposed increase is required just to hold steady – paying for things like state-mandated benefit increases or money to pass through to charter schools for anticipated enrollment growth.

"If we only did what we absolutely are required to do, no choice whatsoever, our budget request would grow by $22.8 million," Dashew said. "So if we have to look at flat funding, that means we’re going to have to cut or redirect $22.8 million." 

It would also mean sacrificing requests for a higher minimum wage and more school counselors, social workers and security staff – or making even bigger cuts to offset them.

A New Norm

But when board members and staff talked Wednesday about running a school district during a pandemic, most of the talk was about the need for more money.

For instance, Chief Technology Officer Derek Root said CMS has sent home about 100,000 Chromebooks and other devices to allow students to do online lessons while schools are closed because of the coronavirus. He read a board member’s written question: "Do we need to increase the technology budget because there will be some loss or damage of devices sent home?"

Yes, Root said, but it’s tough to estimate the loss.

"Assuming we could lose up to 15% of the devices that we have sent home, I would estimate the cost of replacing those devices to be between $1.5 and $2 million," he said.

Chief Operating Officer Carol Stamper said school custodians have been required to do extra duty to sterilize schools -- and those demands won't end when students return.

"I think we are in a new day," Stamper said. "We have set a new norm."

One of the increases in Winston’s budget plan is almost $3 million to boost minimum hourly wages from $13.22 to $14.11. A board member asked what it would take to move custodians to $15 an hour. The answer: Another $2.7 million.

Winston said some people have also asked about providing a stipend for teachers who’ve dug  into their own pockets for resources to teach from home. He called that “something to look at,” but said there’s no source of funding.

Huge Questions Remain

In an interview before the meeting, CMS Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley said massive uncertainty remains. Schools have been closed since March 16, and it's unclear whether they'll reopen in May or the governor's closing order will be extended. The closing has brought some savings in the budget year through the cancellation of profesisonal development for employees, travel for students and staff and athletic events. Shirley projects that utility and garbage collection bills will be down.

But there are also new costs, such as printing paper packets so K-3 students can learn from home, paying for translation services to reach families who don't speak English and staffing call centers for information.

The federal relief package is expected to bring CMS significant money, but the amount and timing remain unclear, Shirley said.

The board has three more weeks to figure out options before the scheduled budget vote on April 28.