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CMS Board OK's $15 An Hour Wage But Objects To 'Bully Tactics'

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board grudgingly approved a raise for about 3,100 hourly employees Tuesday, with members saying they celebrate boosting pay but resent the tactics used to force the district's hand.

The school board’s original plan was to get all its employees up to $15 an hour over the next two years. The 2020 CMS budget included about $3 million to get employees partway there this year, with the rest expected in 2021-22.

But Mecklenburg County commissioners, who provide the money for those wages, said that was too slow. Commissioners noted that the city and county have already adopted a $15-an-hour minimum. They voted to withhold $11 million from CMS unless the district used the money to hit that mark right away.

The problem, board members say, is they have to pull that money from somewhere else – likely involving job cuts and layoffs. They said the district has launched a "soft hiring freeze" in central offices and asked schools to hold one position open for now.

Rhonda Cheek supported a motion by colleague Sean Strain to go back to the county and seek an additional $11.7 million to cover the cost of the increase to $15 an hour.

"When an organization passes a budget and tells us you have to do this unfunded mandate, I feel that’s bully tactics," Cheek said.

Carol Sawyer said she agreed, but doubted the effectiveness of the strategy.

"We are put in a horrible position of having to make funds stretch in ways that they simply won’t, and there will be a shortfall and our students will suffer because of that," Sawyer said. "But I don’t think just telling the county commission we’re not going to do it is going to get us $11 million out of their lockbox."

Strain's motion got only three votes, with Strain, Cheek and Thelma Byers-Bailey voting to go back to the county for more money.

The vote was 7-0 to reluctantly accept the county’s terms, with Strain and Cheek abstaining. Chair Elyse Dashew said raising pay for custodians, cafeteria workers and others should be cause for celebration.

"I really hate that this got so ugly and turned into such a battle," she said.

The raises will take effect when the county releases the $11 million held in reserve and will be retroactive to July 1. Board members say it will take more time to figure out how to offset the unbudgeted expense.

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.