With raises for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools employees on the line, the tug-of-war budget talks between the school board and Mecklenburg commissioners began Wednesday, as interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh presented the county with a request for $355.9 million.
The request is $27.5 million more than the school board asked for last year because, school officials reason, the districts 18,000-plus employees desperately need a 3-percent cost-of-living raise.
Most CMS employees have gotten no raises in nearly four years, while county and city employees have gotten increases.
Were at a critical juncture, said Hattabaugh, arguing that as enrollment continues to grow, CMS should reward teachers for their increasingly difficult work with fewer resources.
We come here today not (for) a handout, but because weve done more with less a lot less, said school board chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart.
District 5 Commissioner Neil Cooksey, a Republican who did not run for reelection this year, challenged Hattabaughs statement that recruiting effective teachers and compensating them fairly is one of the school boards highest priorities.
If thats the case, Cooksey asked, why arent the raises in CMSs base budget?
From this side of the table, it looks like youve kind of secured the fortress of the existing programs, said Cooksey. And then whatever additional things you deem to be important that have some political appeal or...sympathy value, you put on us, and then make us the bad guys.
Republican at-large Commissioner Jim Pendergraph echoed Cookseys concerns. It does put us in a bad position, he said.
Commissioner Vilma Leake, a Democrat, asked that the school board continue to study the programs that work and dont work, and see if theres money to cut there.
Theres no longer any low-hanging fruit to cut, Hattabaugh replied.
Some of the commissioners frustrations stem from a roller-coaster budget process last year that left the county commission with a bad taste in its mouth, said Cooksey.
For months leading up to the budget talks, CMS warned of hundreds of potential layoffs. Then-Superintendant Peter Gorman outlined a dire budget situation that could cost CMS 1,500 jobs 600 of them teaching posts.
CMS said it expected state budget cuts as deep as 15 percent last year. But soon after the county approved a $26 million funding increase for CMS, the state reductions amounted to only 6.8 percent. That allowed CMS to enter the 2011-12 school year with a budget 1.7 percent bigger than the one the year before.
Many county commissioners felt swindled. School board members blamed the awkward mechanics of the N.C. school budgeting system, which forces them to estimate how much funding theyll get from the state, before its decided.
There was no public forum at Wednesdays meeting, but a couple dozen teachers and at least one principal attended the meeting, filling the rows of seats behind the commissioners and school board members.
County commissioners must submit a proposed 2012-13 budget no later than June 1 and vote to adopt it by July 1.
I think its unanimous in this room that we are proud you have a system that is well-respected throughout our nation, said Commission Chairman Harold Cogdell, Jr. We all agree...we would love to see improved outcomes in the communities. The only disagreement is how we get there.