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Charlotte Observer: Superintendent Seeks $27.5 Million More For CMS

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Hugh Hattabaugh Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools needs another $27.5 million from the county to start rebuilding after three years of harsh budgets, interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh told the school board Tuesday. He said CMS is "at a critical juncture," and that last year's slump in high school performance on state exams is linked to staff cuts during the worst budget years. Hattabaugh says most of the money is needed to match what the county plans to do for its own staff: Provide small raises and cover rising health insurance and retirement costs. There's also money to add teachers and tech support in high schools, beef up the district's digital communication, recruit teachers and expand truancy court. For the first time in four years, the CMS budget doesn't include plans for massive layoffs. In some ways, that makes it harder to sell the mix of cuts and new spending, Hattabaugh said before the meeting. In contrast with previous years, which drew crowds of anxious parents and teachers, only three people showed up to speak Tuesday, none about the budget. "We haven't gone out and said 'The sky's falling,' but we have made $16.4 million in cuts," Hattabaugh said. CMS' 2012-13 budget plan totals $1.2 billion in state, local and federal money, up 2.3 percent over this year's $1.17 billion. That includes a request for almost $355.9 million from the county, up from $328.3 this year. County leaders have voiced doubt about finding that much for CMS. In February, commissioners' Chairman Harold Cogdell said it would take a 3-cent tax hike or equivalent cuts in other county services. At a county retreat later that month, County Manager Harry Jones said he won't propose a tax increase. Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley said $355.9 million would be more than CMS has ever gotten from the county, but because of enrollment growth it would still be almost $400 per pupil less than the peak in 2008-09. "I think we are trying to be reasonable," Hattabaugh said. "The economy is just starting to move back in a positive direction." As always, the CMS budget involves juggling the sums expected from various government bodies (CMS does not levy its own taxes). The influx of federal money designed to get public schools through the worst of the recession is drying up, creating a $30 million hole for the coming year. The two-year state budget approved last summer includes a cut of almost $7 million in CMS' discretionary money, which isn't tied to specific salaries and programs. CMS used that money to hire 115 teachers on one-year contracts, to be assigned to schools as needed. The 2012-13 plan eliminates those jobs, but officials say most teachers should be able to find new posts through normal turnover. The formal plan holds few surprises after work sessions to discuss the proposals. Hattabaugh said his staff is still talking with families who want to alter school start and dismissal times, but he won't endorse any change that increases busing costs. The quest for raises poses the biggest challenge. Hattabaugh originally said it would take $25 million to $30 million in new county money to give 3 percent raises to more than 18,000 CMS employees. But he and Shirley freed up $7.5 million in existing county money to cover 1 percent, so they're now seeking $18.6 million for the remaining 2 percent. Most CMS employees have gotten no raises since 2008-09, when the state froze teacher pay because of tight budgets. County employees got raises averaging 3 percent this year, and officials are planning for a 2 percent raise in 2012-13. CMS leaders and employees argue it's only fair for school employees to get something, too. The challenge is CMS has more than four times the workforce of Mecklenburg County, which has about 4,200 on the payroll. The school board will hold another budget session next week, with a vote on April 10. Commissioners will vote on the budget June 5.