Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is asking Mecklenburg County for a $579 million operating budget for the 2022-23 school year, a $40 million increase compared to last year, when a budget dispute between the county and CMS had to be settled through mediation.
The request represents about a quarter of the district’s proposed $2.1-billion budget for the upcoming school year, approved by the CMS Board of Education in April, and includes $332 million in federal COVID-19 funds.
On Tuesday, May 10, CMS Board chair Elyse Dashew along with interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and other district leaders presented the budget to the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.
Hattabaugh, who replaced former superintendent Earnest Winston after the school board fired him for poor performance on April 19, told county commissioners on Tuesday that the new spending plan was created “to ensure we have the resources necessary to close the achievement gap for our students in poverty and our Hispanic and Black students.”
Hattabaugh’s comment was a nod to last year’s budget standoff between CMS and Mecklenburg County, during which commissioners voted to withhold $56 million from CMS’s proposed 2021-22 operating budget until district leaders could present a measured plan to close achievement gaps between white students and students of color.
The county eventually reached an agreement with CMS and released the $56 million plus an additional $11 million, but only after going through a mediation process.
Since that time, the school board has been working with consultant A.J. Crabill, who serves as the national school board governance leader at the Council of the Great City Schools. Crabill was brought on to help the board become more efficient in hopes of overcoming racial disparities and pandemic setbacks for students, according to a December 2021 article by WFAE.
During their presentation on May 10, CMS leaders told the board their 2022-23 budget better aligns the district’s resources with the school board’s priorities, including a strategic plan to address struggling students.
Some of those alignments include increasing pay for teachers and staff; raising minimum pay for teaching assistants to $16.50 an hour; providing additional funding to ensure students have access to college- and career-readiness coursework; hiring more counselors, social workers and psychologists; eliminating several central office positions; and providing additional funding for the district’s Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) program, which will go toward placing more facilitators and interventionists in schools.
These MTSS positions will be filled by skilled teachers deployed specifically to help students fill their skill gaps during the school day but outside of core instruction, according to the budget presentation.
The CMS budget also calls for four additional school resource officers, contract increases for existing school resource officers, funding for charter schools, preventative facility maintenance, a new elementary school, and a new high school, among other expenses.
Dashew noted that, though CMS is asking for $40 million more than last year, “$21 million of that is for things that we have no choice but to pay for.” She cited the charter school funding and retirement benefits as examples.
County commissioners were given an opportunity to ask questions after the presentation, but CMS leaders did not have time to answer them due to a scheduling conflict. According to Chair George Dunlap, CMS had requested their presentation be held earlier in the day or rescheduled, but was denied.
Instead, commissioners read their questions and concerns about the budget onto the record so as to be answered by CMS officials at a later time.
“I’m a little bit concerned about how much the school board received last year — or even the last two, three years — and what your success has been with dealing with the same problems and challenges that you have faced,” said commissioner Wilhelmina Rembert. “What can you point to to say that these dollars were used very effectively and we accomplished X as a consequence?”
Commissioner Vilma Leake also asked to see a breakdown of how the money from last year’s CMS budget was spent. She then questioned how much the district saved by temporarily closing schools and switching to remote learning during the pandemic before asking if the district could reuse and repurpose its old furniture for the two new schools to save money.
Leake, a former teacher and school board member herself, sparked outrage among local teachers in April for her comments at a board meeting discussing concerns with the extra school spending despite not having seen any improvement in reading scores or other metrics.
“Every parent in this community ought to take out a warrant and have every educator arrested and put in jail for not seeing that their children are not given a quality education, college-ready,” Leake said.
Justin Parmenter, a teacher in CMS schools for 20 years and longtime teacher advocate, wrote a response to Leake’s comments in an email to county commissioners that he then shared over Twitter.
“Across our county, thousands of educators who are just as committed as I am worked their fingers to the bone today to serve Mecklenburg County’s children,” Parmenter wrote. “We deserve your respect and support, not to be dragged in the media and threatened with arrest.”
Multiple commissioners posted to social media denouncing Leake’s comments.
Following the May 10 budget presentation, commissioner Pat Cotham inquired how many teachers were employed at CMS three years ago versus now to understand how many have left and the district’s efforts to replace them. She also asked for student enrollment numbers.
“I know we have lost a lot of students and I would like to know that because that will help us understand the money that you’re asking [for],” she said.
Cotham also suggested higher minimum pay for teacher assistants than CMS’s proposed $16.50 per hour.
“That is a hard job and you’re never going to recruit them at that,” she said.
Commissioner Leigh Altman said she was impressed by the budget presentation in contrast to last year’s.
“As we move forward into a new future with a new superintendent, I think that it’s important to acknowledge the responsiveness that I have seen from the Board of Education to the precise questions that were so painful a year ago and I look forward to supporting in every way that I can the track that they’re on now because I think it’s a good track,” Altman said.
Dunlap, on the other hand, questioned why he and his fellow commissioners should have confidence that the information presented is what’s best for student outcomes, given that the budget was developed under the previous superintendent.
He also pointed out that the bulk of CMS’s ask will pay for investments in employees — $10.8 million for a state-driven salary increase as well as retirement and health insurance rate increases, plus $7.9 million for a 10% increase in county supplements for all teachers and certified staff.
Dunlap asked if CMS teachers work for the county or for the state.
“If they work for the state, why should the county pay their salary increases? Because that seems to be fuzzy,” he said. “To me, that’s like you working at McDonald’s and going to Burger King and saying, ‘I want an increase.’ I have real concern about that.”
County Manager Dena Diorio will present Mecklenburg County’s proposed budget on May 19, which will include the county’s offer to CMS, followed by a public hearing.