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Education
An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

More Money, More Strife As NC Gets COVID-19 Aid For Schools

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Schools across North Carolina have been closed since March 16.

Thursday’s state Board of Education meeting brought more than $30 million worth of good news for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – and accusations from the state superintendent that board leaders aren’t being transparent about spending. 

First of all, if you’re confused about COVID-19 relief money for North Carolina schools, that just means you’re paying attention.

There’s been controversy about a $50 million relief fund set up by Gov. Roy Cooper. Mecklenburg County officials say they were shortchanged in the way the state Board of Education distributed that money.

But that’s not what the board was talking about Thursday. They did talk about a $95 million Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, which is federal money that will go to the governor to distribute.  There wasn’t a lot of detail yet about how that will break out.

The good news for CMS came from the report on another pot of federal money: Almost $390 million in COVID-19 relief money for North Carolina’s public schools. (View documents here.)

"The legislation allocates out the funds based on the proportion of the Title 1 funds that the unit received in the most recent year," said Alexis Schauss, chief business officer for the Department of Public Instruction. In layman’s terms, she’s saying that poverty levels shape who gets the biggest share.

So CMS, which is slightly smaller than Wake County but has more poverty, is expected to get somewhere between about $33 million and $36 million, while Wake gets in the range of $24 million to $26 million. (See chart below for other Charlotte-area districts.)

Schauss noted that some charter schools don’t participate in the federal Title 1 program, so they get nothing – even though they’re facing costs from being forced to close and teach remotely. In the Charlotte area, that includes Lake Norman, Pine Lake Prep and Metrolina Scholars Academy. Sugar Creek Charter, a high-poverty school in Charlotte, is slated for more than $400,000.

A Confusing Request

State Superintendent Mark Johnson jumped into the discussion to say there’s yet another pool of money that hasn’t been disclosed to the public.

"Just to add a bit of transparency here, the state board sent a proposal last night to the Office of State Budget Management specifically requesting $250 million in expenses and something like this was one of those requests," he said.

Board Chair Eric Davis said that wasn’t on the agenda.

"The item he’s describing will be put on a future board meeting agenda," Davis said.

"But you’ve already requested it," Johnson said. "On behalf of the state board."

"And it will be discussed at a future board meeting," Davis said.

No one ever explained what was included in that request, and it wasn’t just members of the public who were confused. Board members started chiming in to say they didn’t know about the $250 million request and they wanted a copy. 

At one point a voice broke in to say, "It was done without board members knowing about it. That’s insane!"

Shortly afterward, a Board of Education staffer said that person wasn't a board member, shouldn't have been speaking -- and was muted.

After the meeting, Johnson said the remark came from the Department of Public Instruction’s chief of staff. Johnson told the board that staff is getting mixed messages.

"I think there’s now a lot of confusion around the department on who is calling the shots on what the state is actually requesting from the state budget office and the General Assembly," he said.

It’s worth noting that Johnson and Davis have clashed repeatedly on various issues – including the distribution of that first governor’s relief fund. Johnson used Thursday’s meeting to chastise Davis over what he called a lack of transparency.

Despite the confusion and sniping, the bright spot is that all school districts – and most charter schools – will soon be getting more help paying for remote learning technology, sanitation, mental health support and other costs of adapting to life in a pandemic.

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