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Commissioner: Mecklenburg Made CMS A 'Scapegoat'; County Manager Defends Funding Plan

Mecklenburg Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell said County Manager Dena Diorio's plan to withhold $56 million from CMS made the school system a "scapegoat."
Mecklenburg County
Mecklenburg Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell said County Manager Dena Diorio's plan to withhold $56 million from CMS made the school system a "scapegoat."

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio and Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell clashed Tuesday night over Diorio’s proposal to withhold $56 million from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools over long-standing achievement gaps between white and minority students.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Rodriguez-McDowell criticized that proposal, which must be approved by county commissioners as part of the upcoming budget.

“We are not acting as true partners to solve a problem,” Rodriguez-McDowell said. “Instead, we have created a scapegoat. This plan is punitive in nature. No Child Left Behind was a failure, and this idea of tying of funding to outcomes is unbelievably short-sighted when we have a system that is woefully underfunded by our state.”

She also attacked Diorio in particular.

“I have to say I was shocked and appalled to see our county manager on the 11 o’clock news saying that the superintendent and his executive team should go without pay until a plan is accepted by county commissioners," Rodriguez-McDowell said. "Come again?”

Diorio defended herself, saying her words were being taken out of context. And she said she was only doing what the board told her to do.

“This is based on the board’s priority,” Diorio said. “You said to me, at our retreat, 'Think outside the box and find a way to improve educational outcomes and tie funding to budget allocations.' I did what you told me to do, so don’t turn around and say you are shocked and appalled.

"I will push back on that all day long. I did exactly what you told me to do.”

Diorio announced the plan last week when she presented her budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year. The county said the $56 million is about 11% of the money CMS is set to receive from the county.

She said the money won’t impact the classroom and would be spent on salaries for Superintendent Earnest Winston and other executives.

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

To get the $56 million, Diorio 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.

While CMS only needs to show a plan to receive the money, it’s unclear what will happen if the district doesn’t make any progress. Diorio has said she doesn’t expect the school system to close those gaps “this fiscal year,” but she hasn’t said how much progress the district must make.

While Rodriguez-McDowell criticized the proposal, other commissioners support Diorio. Vilma Leake and Mark Jerrell have spoken in favor of the move. According to The Charlotte Observer, some supporters of Diorio's plan gathered outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center on Monday.

During the CMS board meeting Tuesday, Superintendent Earnest Winston spent less than three minutes voicing disappointment that Diorio’s budget could leave CMS up to $81 million short of the $551 million the district has asked for.

“It means that there is the very real potential for students and staff to be adversely affected,” Winston said.

He didn’t elaborate, other than to say the CMS request was made in the best interest of students and staff.

Board members didn’t question him or push him to address Diorio’s concerns. But member Jennifer De La Jara did suggest some challenges for the county, such as setting goals to provide housing for homeless students and reduce racial disparities in asthma cases.

“I think we’ve got serious work that takes serious people and good-faith partners to align our community goals together if we really want to achieve differences in student outcomes,” she said.

— Ann Doss Helms contributed to this report

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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.