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Mecklenburg, CMS Leaders Move To Formal Mediation On Education Spending Stalemate

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members and district leadership meet with Mecklenburg County commissioners and county leadership Monday to resolve a budget dispute over education funding.
Ann Doss Helms
Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members and district leadership meet with Mecklenburg County commissioners and county leadership Monday to resolve a budget dispute over education funding.

Last updated 7:30 p.m.

After airing their views for more than two hours, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and Mecklenburg County commissioners ended up where they started Monday: locked in disagreement about the county’s decision to temporarily withhold $56 million from the school system.

"I'm not sensing a sufficient basis for agreement today," lawyer Mac McCarley, a former Charlotte city attorney who's been hired to mediate the dispute, said at the end of the joint meeting. No one argued with him.

The meeting was required by law as part of the process to resolve disputes when North Carolina school boards think they're being underfunded by county commissioners. At the end of the meeting, the school board voted to request the next step: mediation sessions involving small groups of CMS and county officials who will meet with McCarley in private.

Commissioners and County Manager Dena Diorio spent their time repeating their argument that they fund CMS generously and deserve a more detailed report on plans to improve academic outcomes among Black and Hispanic students. Commissioners recently voted 7-2 to withhold $56 million until CMS provides more specifics.

"What we're asking for is the fully developed plan. It's real simple," commission Chair George Dunlap said.

He said he was unimpressed by the CMS presentation showing other districts across America face similar gaps, with performance even lower than in Charlotte.

“We have seen statistics about how, when taken as a whole, our county is not as bad off as others in our nation,” Dunlap said. “That is not the standard that we should be measured.”

CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston said the district is working to better serve minority students.

“An example would be our focus on becoming an anti-racist organization,” Winston said. “We also have a strategic priority to recruit and retain the best talent with an emphasis on recruiting educators of color. Continuing those efforts requires sufficient funding.”

Dashew said the district has a strategic plan that county officials have seen. It needs to be fleshed out and updated to reflect the impact of the pandemic, she said, and CMS leaders are doing that.

[RELATED: What Data On Race Gaps, Low-Performing Schools Say About CMS]

But Dashew said the county has no business telling the school board how to run public schools and argued that the county’s criticisms are hurting the school district.

“Your threats and your finger pointing and your misinformation campaign have real potential to harm our students, especially our Black and brown students, at the moment they can least afford to take the hit,” Dashew said.

Teachers Say They're Worried

For the school board, this was the first meeting since the pandemic that allowed an in-person audience. Spectators weren't allowed to speak, but about a dozen educators showed up in "Red4Ed" T-shirts to support CMS.

"This is a decades-old issue, and it's not only a CMS-Charlotte issue," said Mechelle Vaughn, a first-grade teacher at Paw Creek Elementary School.

She said the county's action "felt like a jab."

"I felt disrespected. I take it personally because of how hard we work," she said before the meeting.

Peri Alletto, a special education teacher at Northeast Middle School, said he's worried that he won't have the assistants he needs in August because the county is holding back money.

"We are short four staff now because of transfers, and I don't know how I'm going to start a school year with no teacher assistants, with severely handicapped kids, because of this money," he said.

In recent weeks, some ministers and community activists have sided with the county, saying CMS needs to be forced to do more.

Urgency For Change Is Real

Members of both boards say there's an urgent need to help Black, Hispanic and low-income students succeed.

"We cannot continue on a course where such large levels of any group are underperforming to the levels we currently see," said Commissioner Mark Jerrell. "We are experiencing a crisis of epic proportions and the alarm bell is being sounded."

School board member Rhonda Cheek said some struggles come from obstacles outside the classroom, such as hunger, homelessness and health crises.

"When these kids arrive at the classroom they put their head on the desk and they go to sleep," she said. "And you know why? Because they're tired. Because they slept in a car last night or they were taken to a neighbor's house in the middle of the night because Mom had to rush their asthmatic brother to the hospital."

Better Luck In Private?

The dispute resolution law says the next round of private mediation should involve the chairs of both boards, the superintendent, the county manager and each board's finance officer and attorney, though they can agree to a different negotiating team.

Commissioners Laura Meier and Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, the two who voted not to withhold money from CMS, suggested Monday that both boards should pick someone other than their chairs to seek common ground.

"The community wants its elected leaders to work together to solve problems and make progress," Rodriguez-McDowell said. "Our chairs and vice chairs have had the opportunity to meet together and they've failed to make progress. It is time to give someone else a turn."

Neither board voted to name new negotiators.

McCarley said he'll try to line up the private session "as quickly as we possibly can." If there's no agreement by Aug. 1, the law spells out a formula for determining how much the county must provide CMS.

“My guess is what we will ultimately end up with is using the state’s formula to determine the amount of funding. We’re both bound by that,” Dunlap said after the meeting.

The law requires the county and CMS to split the costs of mediation. At Monday's meeting, McCarley was accompanied by two "summer associates" from his law firm, Parker Poe. County spokesperson Danny Diehl said the cost of the action is not yet known.

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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.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.