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CMS: We need $15 million to break even

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will need an additional $15 million from the county just to cover rising costs, enrollment growth and the opening of a new elementary school, Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley told the school board Monday.

The big-ticket item in the 2013-14 budget, employee raises, remains a question mark. Shirley said a 1 percent across-the-board raise would cost $7.8 million, but officials hope state lawmakers will approve raises so the district’s 18,000-plus employees don’t have to depend on county taxpayers alone.

Superintendent Heath Morrison will present a budget plan April 9, with a focus on what is needed from Mecklenburg County commissioners. But the county provides only 28 percent of the district’s $1.2 billion budget, so that request is shaped by state and federal education spending.

“The only certainty we have so far is that we are going to get less federal money,” Morrison told the board. Federal stimulus money bumped up the total during the recession, and sequestration is expected to drop it in the coming year.

This year Mecklenburg commissioners gave CMS $337 million, which included money to increase 1.2 percent state raises to 3 percent.

CMS planners project enrollment growth of 4,318 Mecklenburg students next year, with 2,665 in CMS and 1,653 in charter schools. The money needed for growth and inflation includes $2.7 million that CMS must pass along to charters, which are public schools that report to independent boards.

CMS will open one new school, Grand Oak Elementary in Huntersville, in August. That adds just over $1 million in maintenance costs, Shirley reported.

While Morrison and Shirley provided no details about additional spending plans, it’s clear that technology will be a big addition to the county request.

Technology Chief Valerie Truesdale, who came to CMS last fall, said the district’s 159 schools are “woefully behind” on the technology and internet access needed to provide up-to-date lessons and parent communication. She said 3,400 classrooms don’t even have projectors, and mobile classrooms add to the challenge of making digital instruction readily available.

By 2014-15, CMS and other districts across North Carolina must offer state exams online. That requires internet access in classrooms, Truesdale said, because making students take turns trooping through a computer lab would drag out testing for weeks.

“That actually becomes a have-to-do, not a want-to-do,” Morrison agreed. He said previous CMS leaders, as well as other districts around the state, expected more financial support from the state’s federal Race to the Top grant. Online testing was one element of the plan that helped the state win a four-year, $400 million grant to improve education.

Two other items highlighted in Monday’s work session were improving support and training for teachers and adding partnership coordinators to help schools match individual students’ needs with volunteers and agencies that can serve them.

Board members asked about a range of other potential budget issues, such as changing school hours, adding school psychologists and spending on cultural competency training. Morrison said he’ll bring specifics on new spending in April, along with recommendations for cuts to offset some of the costs.

After Morrison presents a proposal and the school board endorses it, the request for county money goes to commissioners, who will approve a budget in June.

Helms: 704-358-5033
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