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CMS board votes to ask Mecklenburg commissioners for a $40 million budget increase

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Ann Doss Helms
An Oakdale Elementary first-grader eats breakfast while doing an online lesson in class.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted 8-0 Tuesday to ask Mecklenburg County commissioners for a $40 million increase in local spending for education.

The $2 billion budget plan includes $578 million in county money, up 7.5% over this year. That includes almost $14 million to raise pay for teachers and assistants, as well as $3.8 million to do more for the growing number of students who arrive in CMS not speaking English well.

"I am particularly excited about so many of our investments in our English language learners," said board member Margaret Marshall. "Because we really are going to need to advance that work."

The budget was prepared by Superintendent Earnest Winston and his staff. After the board fired Winston last week, Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh said he’s ready to present it to county officials. He said the added spending is like investing in a business.

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Ann Doss Helms
CMS Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh

"In our case, you have to invest money to get a return in student achievement scores," Hattabaugh said. "And you can’t do it by cutting budgets. It’s not going to happen."

Last year several commissioners complained that CMS leaders didn’t have a clear plan for using county money to get better results for students, especially students of color. Since then the board has zeroed in on a few academic targets.

A six-week budget standoff between Mecklenburg County commissioners and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board over $56 million is over. The county agreed to give the district the money — along with an extra $11 million.

Board member Sean Strain said it will be essential to show how the money makes a difference: "How much will the goals advance? And if it’s not approved and it was held flat, then how much, possibly, would it recede?"

Board members and staff noted that part of the increase is driven by things CMS can't control, such as rising costs for health insurance and the money that has to be passed through for an anticipated increase in charter school enrollment.

The total budget is inflated by $322 million in federal COVID-19 relief money that can be spent between now and 2024. Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley says that money will help students and staff, but it will run out.

The plan voted on Tuesday is virtually identical to Winston's proposal. Shirley said the total county request dropped by more than $600,000, based on discussions with the county about how to pay for social service and mental health positions.

Board member Rhonda Cheek was absent. Everyone present supported the plan.

"This is a good budget," said member Lenora Shipp. "Of course, we always want more when it comes to academic achievement. We need more. We need all we can do for the children."

Hattabaugh and the board will present the plan to county commissioners on May 10.

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Breakdown of increases for CMS employees

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.