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Mecklenburg County Commissioners question teacher layoffs

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners met yesterday to hash out differences in their budget proposals. CMS made the case for keeping its funding request to the county the same as last year. The county listened and raised questions. WFAE's Simone Orendain has more: CMS is asking the county for $351 million. That's what the county gave for this school year. But for next year, the county proposes funding just $313 million of the request. Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones reminded everyone present the county's budget proposal for next year is about $100 million less than this year's budget. And he added during this economic downturn, the state's allocation to local government could likely come with a demand for more cuts. "This has been the most difficult budget I've ever been through in my career," he said. The CMS budget does make allowances to trim an additional $35 million to meet the county's requirements. This has meant letting go of 367 classroom teachers and 83 assistant principals. The district started notifying those workers last week. It was a mostly civil dialogue between the holders of the purse strings and the group asking for money. But several commissioners wanted to disassociate themselves from teacher layoffs. Commissioner Bill James said they're in an awkward position of having to justify the CMS cuts to constituents. He said, "We're not cutting teachers. We're cutting the dollar amount because we don't have it. But when a proposal is presented to eliminate teacher funding when there are less critical areas that could be eliminated first, we end up in this back and forth where the news media says, 'oh, they're cutting teachers' and we say, 'we're not.'" James questioned whether the district was sticking to its core mission of educating children from grades K through 12. He strongly opposes the county allocating $11 million toward the Bright Beginnings program for pre-Kindergarteners. Superintendent Peter Gorman responded that determining what is essential to core learning is subjective. He argued that a strong pre-K education puts disadvantaged children on the right track. Commissioner George Dunlap questioned a two percent pay increase for teachers and school-based administrators. "And the rub comes when you have the county who has essentially told its employees don't expect anything. Then to hear from the school board, we're proposing a 2 percent increase and we're expecting the county to match that," he said. Dunlap warned that commissioners would be taking a very close look at the proposed $2.4 million to match a state-funded salary hike. In place of teacher layoffs, Commissioner Vilma Leake is eying central office positions, Gorman's salary- not just his bonus- and the learning communities, as possible cuts. Leake said, "And I'm not one to support a process that's going to take money from the workers of the county. I hear what you're saying. You need money. But we have more money than we ever have, in the history of this school district." As a school board member, Leake often complained that money going to struggling schools did not translate into success there. CMS board member Kaye McGarry once again voiced her opposition to the teacher eliminations. She pointed to consolidating county and education services such as the CMS TV channel. County Manager Harry Jones and Gorman submitted a joint statement to both bodies saying they'd begun exploring ways to consolidate athletic facility and building management, food purchases, human resources and television production and graphics. After the meeting, County Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts noted this is just the beginning of the county's budget process. She also said this was a good start. "I think there were people who were glad to hear there were some tough decisions being made and that they were being made around achievement. And trying to close the achievement gap, trying to keep good teachers in the schools. I think that gave some people a sense of satisfaction, that maybe they were more concerned, coming into the meeting," said Roberts. School board Chair Molly Griffin said she was pleased the lines of communication between the two bodies have opened.