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

CMS Board: We Need $538M From Mecklenburg But Probably Can't Get It

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Imagine being ordered to draw a map of a place you've never been. That's a lot like Tuesday night's Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools budget vote.

The board voted 8-1 to approve a $1.6 billion budget plan that includes a $36.7 million increase in county funding -- even though members and staff acknowledged they probably won't get it.

"We may need to make budget modifications as more information becomes available in the coming months," Superintendent Earnest Winston said.

But several board members said there wasn't much point making drastic cuts before they have a clear idea of what Mecklenburg County officials are expecting from an economy sent into freefall by COVID-19 closings.

"We wish we knew more," said board member Margaret Marshall. "I had frankly in the beginning wanted to delay this a bit because there's so many things we don't know."

She said waiting isn’t an option, even though CMS doesn’t have full updated revenue projections from the county and "even as we speak the General Assembly is working on bills that will affect what we’re talking about right now."

North Carolina school districts don’t have taxing authority. So there’s always a fair amount of guesswork involved in preparing a budget before the state, county and federal governments dole out the money.

But the coronavirus shook up everything this spring, from how schools operate to what’s available to fight a pandemic and a recession. So CMS basically stuck with the budget officials had created before COVID-19 shook the financial Etch-A-Sketch clean.

Winston and several board members say the plan they’ll submit to the county is a starting point.

"And as we know more we will adjust, and adjust quickly and be as transparent as we can as fast as we can," Marshall said.

That plan asks for $538 million in county money, an increase of $36.7 million over the current year. Some of that goes toward increases CMS can’t control, such as the county share of mandatory benefit increases or enrollment growth. Most of that will be passed through to charter schools.

The request also seeks county money to hire more social workers, counselors, school security staff and teachers for students with disabilities. Several board members said they hope to have more nurses when students return to class, but school nurses are employed by the county Health Department and aren’t in the CMS budget plan.

And there’s almost $3 million to boost the lowest hourly pay to $14.11 an hour, up from $13.22.

Board member Carol Sawyer said about 3,100 CMS employees make less than $15 an hour, which puts them at risk of hunger and homelessness.

"That is a problem that frankly we create, and then we rely on social services and volunteer agencies to help us fix it," she said.

But Sawyer said it would take another $8 million to $11 million to get them all to $15 an hour. While some other board members praised her comments, there was no motion to add that.

Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey said even if CMS doesn’t get all it’s asking for, it’s the board’s duty to present the needs.

"Regardless of what comes down the pike from the county or what comes down the pike from the state, it is so very important that we do say what we need. You don’t get it if you don’t ask for it," Byers-Bailey said, adding that "there's no fluff in this budget."

Board member Sean Strain cast the only vote against the plan. He agreed that CMS needs the increase – and even more – but he said officials have known for weeks the county expects to give CMS a flat budget. He said the district should have tried to scale back.

"The economy has tanked, fallen through the floor as a result of a global pandemic," Strain said. "The revenue associated with that that goes into the county funds will also significantly drop and we haven’t taken that into account."

The plan goes to the county on Friday, when County Manager Dena Diorio is scheduled to present her budget proposal to commissioners. There’s a public hearing scheduled for May 7, which will presumably have to be done online to keep from spreading the virus.