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County Could Keep $56M From CMS Unless Detailed Plan To Close Achievement Gap Is Created

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio proposed withholding $56 million from CMS this year unless the district creates a detailed plan to improve some metrics for minority students.

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio proposed Thursday withholding $56 million from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools until the school district presents the county with a detailed plan to close racial and ethnic achievement gaps by 2024.

“This is a way to tie funding to accountability,” Diorio said, noting that Mecklenburg County commissioners have said that achievement gaps between white and minority students is “unacceptable.”

Diorio said that withholding the money would encourage the district to do better. She said the loss of money wouldn’t impact the classroom, and that it would be placed in a “restricted contingency” until “a series of conditions are met.”

She said CMS must present a plan to improve the performance of 42 low-performing schools in the district. Other requirements include making sure that 75% of students in all racial and ethnic subgroups graduate by 2024.

Diorio said CMS must also “limit the achievement gap disparity of college and career readiness to no more than 10% for each demographic subgroup by 2024.”

The metrics to determine college readiness include performance on end-of-course tests, as well as Advanced Placement tests, among other metrics.

The $56 million represents 11% of CMS’ allocation from the county.

It appears the district can have the money released, so long as it gives the county details on what it’s going to do. But it’s unclear what would happen next year or the year after if CMS doesn’t make progress toward those goals.

A CMS statement released Thursday evening said: "Our funding request this year represents what we know our students need as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. We are disappointed that Mecklenburg County has proposed denying approximately 16% of our local funding request. This denial will adversely affect our students and staff."

During interviews with the media Thursday, Diorio was asked about the challenges low-income parents and students have faced during the pandemic, and whether those circumstances would make it difficult for CMS to close the achievement gap.

“We are giving them a half a billion dollars to educate the children of Mecklenburg County and we expect outcomes,” Diorio said.

Last year, Mecklenburg County commissioners approved a budget that withheld $11 million from CMS unless the district paid its employees at least $15 an hour.

CMS eventually raised its minimum wage to to $15 per hour and received the funds, though one school board member called it "bullytactics." The district said it didn’t fill between 150 and 175 jobs because it didn’t have enough money to pay them.

But that decision to withhold money from CMS was different than this proposal. This year, the county is demanding CMS close achievement gaps that educators across the country have been unable to close.

Charles Jeter, the executive director for government affairs and policy for CMS, said “withholding $56 million from the public education system doesn’t seem like a logical process to improve educational outcomes in Mecklenburg County.”

The county’s $1.99 billion budget does not raise property taxes.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.