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One County Budget Proposal Attempts To Dictate CMS Priorities

Mecklenburg County commissioners are trying to decide how much to give CMS. One proposal from Commissioner Harold Cogdell would give CMS an extra $34 million. But that money would come with strings attached. It includes a $10 million grant that CMS would have to spend on the district's pre-k program called Bright Beginnings. The school board would rather spend that money on saving teaching assistants and librarians. It's a proposal that raises questions about the appropriateness of commissioners trying to dictate CMS priorities. The proposal to give Bright Beginnings a $10 million grant to keep the program intact isn't a new one. Commissioner Vilma Leake brought it up in February. At the time, Commissioner Harold Cogdell said he felt that may be overstepping the commission's boundaries by telling the school board how to spend money. "I can't say as I sit here, whether or not Bright Beginnings is more critical than 255 classroom teachers, or 134 weighted student staffing positions. It could be. It may very well be. But the question is: whose role is it to make that decision," argued Cogdell. Cogdell has resolved that question. He's now the one who's proposing a Bright Beginnings grant. So what changed? "I struggle with this issue some because I do understand the importance of the school board understanding the needs of education in our community better than other elected officials. I also understand how important and how critical early childhood education is," says Cogdell. Commissioner Bill James doesn't buy that argument. First, he doesn't care for the Bright Beginnings program. But more importantly, James says it's improper to interfere with the school board, even though he doesn't trust CMS board members. "I think they are parochial and generally incompetent," says James. "But voters are the ones that put them in there and... we have a right to provide them money with some limited controls, but we don't have the right to specify certain particular things." The school board has requested an extra $50 million from the county. That money would be enough to keep the Bright Beginnings program intact and save 400 teaching jobs, 328 teaching assistants, and 164 librarians and counselors. The school board has already voted to make those teaching and support jobs a higher priority than Bright Beginnings. Commissioner Cogdell wants to give CMS an additional $34 million, but his proposal makes Bright Beginnings a higher priority. The 324 teaching assistants and 164 librarians and counselor jobs would be lost. School board member Joe White says its puts the board in a tough spot. On one hand, the district is in no position to turn down money. On the other, the school board thinks it could make better use of it elsewhere. "I get a little heartburn in anybody else telling us how to spend the money that we're supposed to spend, but that could be a unique situation. So bring it to me and let's talk about it," says White. County commissioners will be making most of the budget decisions this week. They expect to adopt a budget on Tuesday. The commission has tied funding to a specific CMS program in the past, the high school challenge grant. But that was done at the school board's request.