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Closed-Door Phase Of CMS-Mecklenburg County Budget Struggle Begins

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Mediator Mac McCarley speaks at a joint meeting of the county commissioners and school board June 7.

The budget battle between Mecklenburg County commissioners and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board moved into a private phase Monday as closed-door mediation sessions began.

The dispute has played out in public since May 6, when County Manager Dena Diorio proposed withholding $56 million from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, to be released after CMS leaders release a more detailed plan for boosting academic achievement among students of color and improving low-performing schools. Commissioners approved that plan 7-2.

The county budget office recently explained that $56 million was chosen because it's roughly 10% of what CMS asked for.

"We believe that CMS has the flexibility of plus or minus 10% of their budget to continue providing educational services without significant impact to the classroom through alternative allocations to specific CMS programs and/or functions," said a statement sent by Deputy Public Information Director Andy Fair. "And this amount would be significant enough to be a real motivator to start the dialogue to meet the county’s request."

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Ann Doss Helms
Educators supporting CMS brought signs to a June 7 joint meeting of county commissioners and the school board.

The school board requested the mediation process, which is spelled out in state law. Board members and Superintendent Earnest Winston agree a detailed plan for improvement is needed, and they say it's in the works. But they say county commissioners are overstepping their legal role in trying to attach strings to the money they provide.

CMS requested $551 million from the county for the coming year, an increase of $26.5 million over the current year. Members say even if the $56 million is restored, the $527 million approved by the county is too little to meet the needs of students and staff.

Educators, clergy and community activists have staked out sides in the clash, with some saying CMS needs to be forced to work harder for students of color and others saying the county's tactics will harm the students who most need help.

The two bodies held a joint meeting last week as required by law, but made no progress toward an agreement. They agreed that Mac McCarley, a former Charlotte city attorney, will serve as mediator.

Unlike that meeting, which was open to the public under the state's open meetings law, the mediation sessions will involve just a few elected officials and will not be public. The law specifies that the mediator will not disclose anything about the talks beyond the resolution.

If no agreement is reached by Aug. 1, McCarley can declare an impasse. In that case, a funding formula kicks in, based on previous funding and the number of students. The law also allows the two boards to extend talks past that date.

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