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Superintendent seeks $82.6 million increase for CMS raises, laptops and building repairs

Superintendent Crystal Hill (right) presents her 2024-25 budget plan to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board on Tuesday.
Ann Doss Helms
Superintendent Crystal Hill (right) presents her 2024-25 budget plan to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board on Tuesday, April 9, 2024.

Superintendent Crystal Hill presented a budget plan Tuesday that seeks an additional $82.6 million from the county for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools operating and capital spending.

It’s a request that would almost certainly force county commissioners to raise property taxes — beyond the tax hikes already expected in coming years to pay off debt for the $2.5 billion in school bonds that voters approved in November.

In a letter posted with the budget, Hill and board Chair Stephanie Sneed said the increase is needed “to maintain our current level of service while also supporting student growth, new schools, employee investment and cyber defense.” The plan includes raises for teachers and hourly staff, new laptops for students to take home and new roofs and HVAC systems for 30 aging buildings.

The school board didn’t discuss the size of the request — something the budget presentation downplayed. Chief Financial Officer Kelly Kluttz described the operating request as slightly smaller than the $40 million increase that county commissioners approved last year.

Chief Financial Officer Kelly Kluttz presents the superintendent's budget proposal to the school board on Tuesday.
Ann Doss Helms
Chief Financial Officer Kelly Kluttz presents the superintendent's budget proposal to the school board on Tuesday.

“That reflected a 6.98% increase from the previous budget. This year we are proposing an increase of $35 million, and that reflects a 5.86% increase,” she said.

But an online budget posted Tuesday evening shows a request for a $63.5 million increase in operating money, which comes to about 10%. And the capital budget calls for an 83% increase, from $23 million to $42 million. That brings the school system’s total request for county funding to $702 million, or 13% more than the current year.

The $35 million figure cited by Kluttz and Hill excludes millions of dollars for what Kluttz described as one-time requests.

“When you think about a one-time request, I would just ask you to think about money that you have in your savings account,” she told the board. “So if you have money in your savings account you can do something one time. You can take that big trip. You can enjoy yourself, but you’re not going to take a second trip.”

However, all the items she described as one-time requests were also described as part of multi-year projects that would require continuing money.

The school board is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the budget on April 23, vote on it at a special meeting April 30 and present it to county commissioners in May.

Raises are big items

One of the biggest items CMS seeks is a request for $13.8 million as the first step in a three-year plan to boost the pay of hourly employees, such as teacher assistants, bus drivers, maintenance and cafeteria workers. The lowest-paid employees would go from $15.60 an hour to $17.25, but they’d also receive a cost-of-living bonus that would bring them to the equivalent of $20 an hour.

Superintendent Crystal Hill fields questions from school board members during Tuesday's budget presentation.
Ann Doss Helms
Superintendent Crystal Hill fields questions from school board members during Tuesday's budget presentation.

The budget broke that request into $9.8 million that was counted as recurring funding and $4 million for the one-time bonus. However, the plan calls for coming back to the county the following year to convert that bonus into part of the hourly wages.

There’s also $7.4 million to increase the local teacher supplement by 5%. That’s county money added to the state’s base pay, which can help CMS compete with other districts scrambling to hire teachers. The average supplement would go from $10,287 a year to $10,801. Kluttz said that would put CMS second only to Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools and push the district well ahead of Wake County.

“What we want is we want to be first. We want to be No. 1,” Kluttz said. “We want to pay the highest supplement in the state because we want to recruit, and we want to retain the best teachers.”

Laptops and cybersecurity

The plan also seeks $8 million to buy laptops and tablets that students can take home. That money didn’t count toward the $35 million increase that Kluttz and Hill described as ongoing expenses — even though the presentation says it’s part of a $64 million four-year plan to make sure all students have access to up-to-date devices. That comes out to $16 million a year, but Kluttz said $8 million seemed more realistic for the coming year.

Another new item is $2.5 million for cybersecurity. Kluttz described that as “the Cadillac of cybersecurity.” She said the state has been using federal COVID-19 relief money to pay for the system, but that money has run out so it now falls to CMS to cover the cost.

“School districts have been targeted over the last few years and it’s critical to ensure the safety of our financial records (and) our student data records,” Kluttz said.

Working on aging buildings

The $19 million increase in the capital budget would cover major repairs, such as replacing roofs or HVAC systems, at 27 schools and three other CMS buildings. That’s separate from the $2.5 billion in bond money that’s going toward major renovations, replacements and new schools.

Kluttz described it as one-time funding, but also said it’s the first year of a three-year plan.

Is it realistic?

At a joint meeting of the school board and county commissioners in February, County Manager Dena Diorio estimated that increasing the total county budget by more than $36 million would require a property tax increase — on top of the one-cent bump that’s expected as part of the school bond repayment. The CMS request goes far beyond that. And the county also pays for Central Piedmont Community College, social services, parks, libraries, jails and other county services.

Diorio said Wednesday it's too early to say whether the county could provide as much as CMS is asking for because she's still reviewing requests from other county departments. She'll present her budget proposal in mid-May.

"I think it represents what they believe that they need. From that perspective I think it's pretty solid," she said.

She said separating recurring and one-time requests is new for CMS. "This is just different because they've never really asked for that before," she said. "We have to sort of dig deeper on some of those items to see whether we would consider them recurring or one-time."

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Updated: April 10, 2024 at 2:38 PM EDT
Updated April 10 with County Manager Dena Diorio's comments.
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.