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Raises, bonuses and extra staff are in $2.3 billion final CMS budget

A new South Carolina law allows the state superintendent to declare a state-of-education emergency in school districts where 65% or more of the schools are rated “underperforming” for three straight years and potentially fire school boards in those districts.
Bus drivers got bonuses in this year's budget but CMS continues to face shortages.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Tuesday approved a $2.3 billion budget that includes a complex package of pay raises and bonuses.

Budget talks with county commissioners took place in the spring and summer, but the district had to wait for the state budget to pass to finalize its own spending plan. State money accounts for almost half of this year’s operating budget.

The state budget passed in November, and it took more than a month for CMS staff to put all the pieces in place for the board's approval.

"This is just the crazy thing about running a public school in North Carolina," board Chair Elyse Dashew said. "You put this gigantic multi-billion dollar budget together while guesstimating what your revenue and expenses are really going to be."

Money grows, enrollment doesn't

This year’s total is inflated by an influx of federal COVID-19 aid: $472 million that must be spent by September 2024. That money must be used for specific purposes.

Even with that money pulled out, the total budget increased by 5.6% over last year, with enrollment stagnant.

The state hasn’t docked CMS and other districts for enrollment declines since the pandemic. Normally that would result in cuts to spending for teachers and other positions.

That means CMS has more jobs available than it normally would based on having about 140,000 students. But Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley said nationwide staff shortages and unusually high numbers of resignations and retirements mean the district can’t always fill those jobs.

Bonuses get complicated

This year’s pay package is a complex mix of raises and bonuses designed to reward the extra work that’s been required during the pandemic while enticing employees to sign on or stay in their jobs.

Most employees — including school board members — will get a 2.5% raise. For teachers, the exact amount depends on where they fall on the experience-based pay scale.

In addition, the state approved $1,800 bonuses for principals and $300 bonuses for teachers. There’s an additional state bonus of $1,500 for permanent full-time employees who earn less than $75,000 a year and $1,000 for those who earn more.

There are also $1,000 bonuses paid from federal money for teachers who complete training related to COVID-19, and various local recruitment and retention bonuses the board approved earlier using federal COVID-19 money. Those included bonuses for such hard-to-fill positions as bus drivers, substitute teachers and special education teachers.

Tending to students' emotional health

Despite the record budget, Shirley said CMS had to give up on plans to use county money to hire an additional 40 school social workers and psychologists to deal with students’ emotional and mental health needs. CMS asked for an additional $31 million from the county this year and got an increase of $17.2 million.

But later in the presentation Katie Sunseri, the district's executive director for federal programs, said CMS has used federal COVID-19 relief money to add 55 counselors, social workers and psychologists, as well as staff to deal with behavior problems and substance abuse.

"We've also contracted support for school-based mental health," she said. "And that includes six full-time therapists that are working with 13 of the schools and two full-time bilingual therapists that are serving Spanish-speaking students at multiple schools."

Shirley said the federal aid will expire by 2024, and CMS may have to find additional money to keep all those positions in place.

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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.