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To pay educators more, CMS budget plan calls for 7% increase from the county

Math teacher  Joshua Johnson fills a leadership role that helped Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Coulwood STEM Academy top the state for math growth last year.
Ann Doss Helms
Math teachers like Coulwood STEM Academy's Joshua Johnson are especially needed in CMS.

Interim Superintendent Crystal Hill on Tuesday laid out a budget plan that seeks a $39 million increase in county funding for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools — additional money she says is vital to recruiting and keeping teachers in a competitive environment.

That’s the only way CMS can meet its academic goals, Hill said, which include addressing long standing racial disparities and helping students make up for setbacks when schools were closed during the pandemic.

“The No. 1 thing that is going to impact positive student achievement is a fantastic teacher in front of every single student. And then followed behind that is a fantastic principal,” she told the school board.

The $2 billion budget proposal for 2023-24 calls for county funding to jump 7%, from about $558 million this year to $597 million.

Hill called that “a light ask but a critical ask.”

“To fully execute our plan of action our budget requires an increase in the appropriation from Mecklenburg County. This funding is critical to our success,” she said.

A tough budget year

County money covers less than a third of the CMS operating budget, but it’s the part that gets the most focus because it’s the part local officials control. It’s also often the subject of tense, even heated, disputes between county and school officials, with the school board focused on educational needs and commissioners worried about what taxpayers will tolerate. Two years ago the two elected bodies went into formal mediation when they couldn’t agree on a plan.

This year, there’s additional pressure from the county’s property revaluation, which is expected to raise taxes disproportionately on many of the low-income families who are served by CMS. And the school board has asked commissioners to put almost $3 billion in school bonds before voters in a November referendum. That would drive the tax rate up further in coming years, as the county starts borrowing and repaying the money for school construction.

Aside from the 29% covered by Mecklenburg County, the rest of the CMS operating budget comes from the state and federal governments. The surge of federal COVID-19 aid that helped keep local governments meet critical needs during the pandemic is starting to taper off and will run out after the coming year.

Meanwhile, CMS is going into this year’s budget talks with an interim superintendent who stepped into the top job in January, after the board fired Earnest Winston in April and Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh decided to leave the job six months early.

Focus on educator pay

Hill and her staff presented data on high teacher vacancy rates and the need to increase the local teacher supplement to remain competitive with other large North Carolina districts.

“You can see Guilford County has outpaced Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in terms of local supplement for beginning teachers, who represent a large portion of new hires each year,” said Assistant Superintendent Beth Thompson.

Thompson argued CMS teachers also need to earn more to keep up with the rising cost of housing. She said Charlotte’s median rent for a one-bedroom apartment runs more than $17,000 a year — and it takes a salary of about $61,500 to afford that. A CMS teacher has to work about 18 years to reach that level.

“We want teachers to come to work in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,” Thompson said. “Factually, it’s hard to support that enthusiasm when teachers don’t earn enough money to cover rent or dream of buying a home in Mecklenburg County.”

Hill’s proposal includes:

  • Using $10 million in county money to boost principal salaries and increase hourly wages for some school support staff, based on a market study of what it takes to be competitive. The full budget plan says CMS, the nation’s 17th largest school district, pays principals about 10% less than “peers in other similarly sized districts across the country.” It does not spell out which other jobs would be included.
  • Spending $6 million in local money to increase the county’s teacher supplement by 5%. CMS now adds $6,590 to the annual state-paid salary of a teacher with no experience, compared with $6,690 in Wake County and $7,250 in Guilford. The new proposal boosts the CMS contribution to $7,300. For a 30-year teacher, the CMS supplement would rise from $12,382 to $12,877.
  • Using $3.3 million in federal money to expand recruitment and retention bonuses for hard-to-fill teaching jobs. The plan calls for offering a $2,500 recruitment bonus plus a $200 monthly stipend for people who teach students with disabilities, English language learners and secondary math, science and English language arts.

Other expenses and next steps

Board members Summer Nunn and Dee Rankin asked about eliminating an express bus plan for high school magnets that has raised objections from some families. That would require adding about $4.6 million to the transportation budget.

“I know $4.6 million sounds like a large number, but that may be worth it when we talk about equitable access for students to some of our magnet programs,” Rankin said.

Hill said restoring individual stops might be nice, but it’s not as important as pumping more money into educator pay.

Part of the increase in county funding also comes from expenses that aren’t optional, Hill said. That includes matching state raises for employees who are paid with county money, covering higher costs for health insurance and retirement benefits and passing along a share of local money to charter schools that serve Mecklenburg students.

Hill and her staff will hold a public meeting on the plan at 7 p.m. Thursday at Hickory Grove Elementary School. The board will review it in depth next Tuesday and vote on April 25. They’ll then present the request to county commissioners, who approve their budget in June.

Find Tuesday’s 63-slide presentation here and the full 275-page budget plan here.

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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.