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CMS superintendent seeks a $41 million increase from the county and a chance to rebuild

A shortage of meeting rooms at the Government Center forced the CMS board into a pandemic-style Zoom meeting Wednesday night.
A shortage of meeting rooms at the Government Center forced the CMS board into a pandemic-style Zoom meeting Wednesday night.

Superintendent Earnest Winston presented a budget plan Wednesday that seeks an additional $41 million from county commissioners in the coming school year. He says his budget plan lands as the pandemic itself is starting to fade but its academic impacts on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are not.

Winston’s $2 billion budget plan includes more than $300 million in federal COVID-19 aid that can be spent over the next couple of years. He wants to ask Mecklenburg County commissioners for $579 million, an increase of 7.6% over this year.

"It is a priority to increase opportunities for all students, particularly our Black and Hispanic students, the groups that have historically been underserved," he said.

Some of his proposed initiatives are:

  • Spending almost $8 million in county money to increase the local supplement for teachers. He had earlier said it would cost more, but the budget says an anticipated cut in the number of state-funded teachers next year reduces the tab. By adding more to the state's pay scale, CMS hopes to attract teachers in a fiercely competitive market.
  • Using $6 million in county money to boost the minimum pay for teacher assistants from $15 to $16.50 an hour.
  • Spending $3.7 million from the county to better serve students who are learning English. CMS has almost 24,000 such students. The plan would hire 32 teachers to work with those students and create a special academy with extended hours for English learners.
  • Using $5 million in county money for building maintenance, including filtration systems to improve indoor air quality.

Winston pitched his plan as an opportunity for the community to rally around students.
"If we don’t all come together in this moment, then we will get more of what we had before," he said. "What is that? Predictable results."

'Devastating' reading scores

Before the budget presentation, the board reviewed a grim example of what those predictable results look like: A report on third-grade reading scores that board Chair Elyse Dashew called "very devastating."

That report shows that this year only 5% of Hispanic third-graders and 7% of Black third-graders have midyear reading scores that put them on track for future success. That’s worse than the midyear results for last year’s third-graders, when students were learning remotely because of the pandemic.

Winston noted that this year’s third-graders have attended in person since August, but lost parts of their first- and second-grade years.

"We may be on the tail end of the pandemic from a public health standpoint, but I think it’s important to know that many of our students did not have the opportunity to learn some of those foundational reading skills," he said.

Winston detailed responses to the low scores, including a mandate for elementary schools to squeeze 30 more minutes of reading instruction into each school day. "You know, not adding more time to the day, but using the time that we have," he said.

Winston said his recommendations are based on strategies used at First Ward Creative Arts Academy, an uptown Charlotte elementary school. He said First Ward, where most students are Black or Hispanic, has seen significant progress in reading scores for those groups.

Board member Sean Strain said he had expected Winston to do more, such as reassigning staff or moving programs to focus on reading.

"These are children’s futures," Strain said. "So I’m very surprised to not see any reallocation or additional investment called out here."

More clashes with the county?

Winston says his budget for the coming year addresses new investments. Several board members said they need more time to review the 113-page report before coming back next week with more comments and questions.

They’re scheduled to vote on a budget in April and present it to county commissioners in May. Last year, several county officials criticized CMS for doing too little to improve academic outcomes for Black and Hispanic students, and tried to withhold $56 million to force changes. The two boards resorted to formal mediation, which resulted in the county having to release the $56 million and pay CMS an additional $11 million.

Before Wednesday's school board meeting, commissioners’ Chair George Dunlap said his board is still concerned about results. But he said he and Dashew have been working together to try to reduce tension.

"I think I can safely say that the majority of the county commissioners are not looking for a fight in terms of the budget," he said. But, he added, commissioners also aren’t looking to increase taxes.

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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.