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CMS: Mandatory Raises For Some Staff Could Cost 175 Jobs

Cafeteria workers are among the CMS employees who earn less than $15 an hour.

A county mandate to raise all Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools staff to at least $15 an hour could lead to the loss of 175 jobs, the school board chair told county commissioners Friday evening.

On Tuesday, commissioners voted to withhold $11 million from the $527 million allotment for CMS in 2020-21 unless the district adopts a $15-an-hour minimum wage, as the county and city of Charlotte have. Commissioners said CMS should find the money in their existing budget, rather than asking the county for more.

"The school board and CMS organization, they’ve got plenty of smart people over there. They can figure out how to fund their noncertified staff to get them up to $15," Commissioner Trevor Fuller said.

Friday evening, school board Chair Elyse Dashew sent commissioners Chair George Dunlap a letter (text below) saying it would take almost $12 million to provide immediate raises for 3,131 cafeteria workers, custodians, teacher assistants and other staff who make less than $15 an hour. She says CMS has a three-year plan to reach that mark, but that called for spending only about $3 million in the year that begins July 1, with the rest coming in 2021-22.

"If CMS realizes an effective cut of $11 (million) next year, that is the equivalent of eliminating roughly 175 positions," Dashew wrote. "If the (Board of County Commissioners) is truly committed to the idea of getting all of our employees to $15 per hour this year, then we hope that the BOCC would also be committed to fully funding the associated costs."


North Carolina school districts do not have taxing authority, so they rely on state, county and federal money. On Wednesday the county commissioners took a straw poll on a budget that gives CMS a $25.6 million increase, with the unusual restriction pegged to the minimum wage. A formal vote is scheduled for Tuesday.


CMS is one of the county's largest employers, with more than 19,000 people on the payroll.


Here is the text of Dashew's letter to Dunlap:

From: Dashew, Elyse C.
Sent: Friday, May 29, 2020 4:56 PM
To: George Dunlap
Subject: follow-up to our conversation re: $15/hour minimum wage for CMS employees


Chairman Dunlap,


This is a follow-up to our conversation earlier today.  Again, I want to thank you for sharing our concern about our employee wages.  I understand, after talking to you, that there are some lingering negative feelings about a pay raise we implemented last year, and wanted to address that here.  We essentially had three options, once the state budget was not passed: give no raises at all; give raises to only County-funded employees, creating a discrepancy within job classifications; or give a raise across the board.  We chose the latter, which was necessary to implement the first step in our three-year process to raise employee minimum wages to $15 per hour.  We saw that option as the best way to support our employees and our community; you are apparently of the opinion that we should not have done so.


At the same time, you are now demanding that we accelerate a funding plan to give non-certified staff a raise to $15 per hour this year.  I feel I must reiterate that, as I understand it, you want the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (CMBE) to provide you a plan to get all non-certified CMS employees to $15 per hour minimum wages.  We have done that.  In fact, last year the County Manager and Board of Commissioners (BOCC) approved that plan when the FY20 budget was adopted with the funds needed to begin that process.  Our three-year plan was, we thought, the best way to phase in these recurring costs while being respectful of the BOCC’s budget.


George, CMS has 3,131 employees who currently earn below $15 per hour.  These include after-school enrichment personnel; cafeteria workers; clerical staff; and even teacher assistants, in addition to custodians and others.  Some of these are enterprise funds; trying to adapt the budget for those employees, especially at a time of reduced revenues within those enterprises, will constitute a significant challenge.


As you no doubt recall from your time on CMBE, education is riddled with unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments.  This is yet another unfunded mandate.  And it is one that I did not expect from our partners on the BOCC, especially with no “head’s up,” and in the midst of a pandemic.


As you probably also remember, CMBE has statutory restraints that are not applicable to the BOCC.  These include rules that do not allow us to build up significant reserves through cost avoidance.  And, frankly, if we were able to carry over (or put back) any meaningful amount of money, we would be derelict in taking that action.  Our commitment to our students and our staff means that our budget should be a zero-sum effort.


Our budget is an open book, from development through audit.  But to give you some quick insight into where the BOCC-provided funds go, a high-level breakdown of our $538MM operating budget request includes $358MM for salaries and benefits and $69MM for charter school pass-throughs.  Almost 80% of these funds go directly to employees and charter schools.  The balance of that funding goes to things like fuel for our buses; contracted services such as those for Exceptional Children; and our utilities. 


If CMS realizes an effective cut of $11MM next year, that is the equivalent of eliminating roughly 175 positions.  And in order to get everyone to $15 per hour, it will actually cost as much as $11.7MM, which is more than the $11MM in restricted contingency.  And we are creating a recurring deficit.  If the BOCC is truly committed to the idea of getting all of our employees to $15 per hour this year, then we hope that the BOCC would also be committed to fully funding the associated costs.


At this point, I am going to loop the rest of my fellow board members into the conversation, as I understand you will be doing on your end.  I sincerely hope that we can come to a reasonable compromise that supports all current and future employees of CMS, so that each of them can do their best work in service to our students.




Elyse Dashew

Chairwoman, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education

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.