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Hill will talk today about how ‘funding cliff’ could affect CMS jobs and programs

CMS Superintendent Crystal Hill gives a preview of the district's strategic plan to a group of CMS employees, parents, students, and community leaders.
Ann Doss Helms
CMS Superintendent Crystal Hill gives a preview of the district's strategic plan to a group of CMS employees, parents, students and community leaders.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools more than $500 million in extra federal money. Now that money is drying up, and Superintendent Crystal Hill and the school board will talk today about how that could affect jobs and programs.

Last week the district issued a news release saying $190 million in federal money that’s in the current budget will go away, adding that “approximately $60 million … is attached to people and the district is looking for ways not to reduce its workforce once the funding is gone.” That was followed by a series of messages saying neither staff nor school board members would discuss details until after the meeting, which starts at 4 p.m.

The “funding cliff” isn’t a surprise, and it’s not unique to CMS. But the prospect of finding out what could be sacrificed is creating anxiety in a district that employs more than 19,000 people.

Some of the money was spent on short-term needs, such as protective gear, air filtration systems, and laptops and hotspots to shift to remote learning. But the focus quickly expanded to coping with staff shortages, especially for teachers and bus drivers. Those shortages predated the pandemic but worsened as people fell ill, quarantined or quit.

For instance, CMS and surrounding districts used federal relief money to offer recruitment and retention bonuses for hard-to-fill positions, creating a kind of bidding war for employees. Those bonuses ran as high as $7,500, and the impact of ending them is unclear.

When the pool of substitutes dried up, CMS created a “guest teacher” program to offer one-year contracts, with benefits, for certified teachers and others willing to be stationed at one school to fill any roles needed. That effort started small, in a few high-needs schools, but now provides about 500 teachers stationed in all schools. Federal money has also been used to increase daily pay for regular subs.

Part of a bigger plan

The budget represents one early piece of Hill’s long-range strategy. She’s still working on her five-year strategic plan, which will lay out strategies for the academic goals the school board approved in October.

Chief Strategy Officer Beth Thompson told a group of parents, employees and students recently that recruitment and retention of teachers will be a key part of the plan.

“We’re not sure we’re going to recruit our way out of the situation we’re in with teacher shortages right now,” Thompson said. “So we’re curious about what that means for retention of teachers. We’re curious about what teachers would say they need to continue teaching.”

Other priorities include improving professional development, upgrading technology and building stronger community partnerships. Thompson didn’t discuss specifics at the “think tank” session, saying those will take shape in continuing sessions with employees and community members.

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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.