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How should CMS spend money? Click to advise

Online survey lets public rate next year’s budget priorities

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How much focus should Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools put on improving school security, adding magnets, expanding diversity efforts and doing more for advanced students?

District leaders are offering an online poll for the public to weigh in on those and other priorities as they shape the 2013-14 budget. CMS launched the poll Wednesday on its website, www.cms.k12.nc.us, and said it will be active for at least a couple of weeks.

The poll asks participants to rate the importance of 11 possible spending areas, which also include pre-kindergarten, technology, data and college preparation. There are questions about whether to spend money on teacher raises and reducing classroom sizes, and a question focusing on five options for improving school safety.

There’s a lot at stake. CMS, one of the region’s largest employers, has a budget topping $1 billion, with money coming from the state, county and federal governments. Decisions about education shape business recruitment, the economy and an array of social issues.

The poll is part of a $140,250 contract with K12 Insight, a Virginia-based education consulting group, to do surveys, focus groups and analysis throughout this school year.

It comes as Superintendent Heath Morrison prepares his first CMS budget. In past years, the school board has generally started budget work sessions in January. Two years ago, then-Superintendent Peter Gorman unveiled a preliminary budget in mid-January that called for cutting 1,500 jobs in response to a projected $10 million in cuts.

Morrison said he’s moving slower to get input from the survey, town hall meetings and 22 recently created task forces. He’s also waiting for more details about money coming from the other government bodies that support CMS.

Six of the 10 survey questions are “did you know” items that provide information about the budget, rather than seeking it. Even those asking public opinion hint at Morrison’s issues and priorities – and drew immediate questions.

Susan Plaza, a CMS parent who is part of a group studying school hours, emailed Morrison noting that there is no question about increasing transportation spending to revise bell schedules that have been unpopular with some parents and teachers.

“It has been clearly stated that this is a budget issue and you are very aware of the many teachers and parents who would like to see change,” Plaza wrote. “Is there any way to add a question about this to the survey?”

Survey questions are worded to provide context about costs. For instance, the final question states:

Smaller class size is a common request by parents and teachers. Reducing class size requires more resources, such as additional staff and classrooms. Here are some important facts you should know related to class size: Adding one teacher in every CMS school costs about $9.6 million, while building one additional classroom costs about $130,000. Given these facts, to what degree do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?

The options are: “Class sizes should remain unchanged given the cost tradeoff” and “Class sizes should be reduced despite the cost, even if comes at the expense of programs that drive academic achievement.”

The survey includes space for comments and suggestions.

Morrison said Wednesday that he’ll present a timeline for next steps in the budget process at the Feb. 12 school board meeting.

Helms: 704-358-5033
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