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The latest CMS budget: New crew, new tactics, old tensions

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 April 9.

This analysis originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

Last week’s unveiling of Superintendent Crystal Hill’s proposed budget for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was a puzzler. Hill, Chief Finance Officer Kelly Kluttz and school board Chair Stephanie Sneed are pitching it as a request for a relatively modest $35 million increase in operating funds, similar to what the county granted for the current year. But there were other items floating around in the presentation, and the online budget book made it clear: The increase is really $63.5 million.

The gap comes from what CMS is labeling one-time requests — items that CMS apparently expects to be set aside, even though they add $28.5 million to the request for county money. Kluttz compared it to tapping money in a savings account for a vacation: “You can take that big trip. You can enjoy yourself, but you’re not going to take a second trip.”

But if that analogy is true, CMS is really more like a family that goes to Disney every year. This specific trip may be a one-time thing, but they’re already planning the next one. The CMS “one-time requests” include $8 million to buy new laptops and tablets for students to take home — a sum that covers one-eighth of a multi-year investment. There’s also money to boost the district’s lowest-paid hourly workers to $20 an hour. It’s described as a one-time expense because it would be paid as a bonus in the coming year. But the pay bump wouldn’t just go away — it would be converted to regular pay the following year, making that one-time expense … ongoing operating funds.

There’s also a request for a hefty bump in capital spending — not for the $2.5 billion worth of bond projects that were approved in November, but for the next tier of buildings that need major work such as new roofs and HVAC systems. CMS calls that a one-time request … that’s also part of a three-year project.

Bear in mind that almost everyone involved in presenting the 2024-25 budget is relatively new to CMS. Hill worked on the current budget as interim superintendent. Since she got the permanent job last summer, she has brought in a new CFO, along with a lot of other new administrators. And seven of the nine school board members who will vote on the budget have less than two years’ experience.

I had hoped that Hill and Kluttz would explain their approach after the meeting. But while my query was acknowledged, so far no one has responded.

Minimizing the request feels like a public relations hustle, but it’s not clear what the end game would be. If I found the real numbers while sitting in the press pit with my laptop at the school board meeting, County Manager Dena Diorio and county commissioners would surely be aware of the full amount. Diorio did respond to me, and she described the whole “one-time funding” approach as new but not necessarily alarming. She says she’ll take a closer look as she prepares her own budget for mid-May.

Diorio declined to discuss whether an increase of $82.6 million in operating and capital funding would require a tax hike. But unless things have changed dramatically since her February estimates, it would.

Which brings us back to tensions I’ve seen throughout the 22 years I’ve covered CMS budgets. Mecklenburg County residents, in general, want to support public schools … and hate tax hikes. CMS officials have no taxing authority of their own — they rely on county funds to augment the state’s funds — and countless district leaders have said it’s their duty to ask for what’s needed. Meanwhile it falls to county officials to decide how much of that request is affordable, creating a predictable budget tug-of-war between the two boards.

The school board will hold a public hearing on the budget at its April 23 meeting and vote at a special meeting April 30.

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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.