In the monthslong process to craft Mecklenburg County’s coming budget, Wednesday’s public hearing was a night for democracy in action.
For four hours, nearly 70 Mecklenburg residents stood before county commissioners to push for their causes – and have their say on County Manager Dena Diorio’s recommended $1.5 billion budget for the coming fiscal year.
Commissioners are set to take a straw vote on the proposal Thursday and adopt a budget Tuesday.
In a packed chamber, they spoke for teacher pay raises, continued support for parks and reading programs, and for the care of the homeless and uninsured. And they came in big numbers – and with lots of signs – to urge commissioners to approve Diorio’s recommendation that Mecklenburg hire 33 new school nurses and three supervisors so each Charlotte-Mecklenburg school would have a full-time nurse.
It was a civic lesson in what services the county performs.
Elyse Dashew spoke on behalf of 1,150 petition signers and 646 Facebook supporters who want the board to add $19.4 million to the budget for a 3 percent raise for CMS employees.
She thanked the board for its investment in education, “but it won’t mean much if a large number of our teachers go to work in York County” or other states. “We clearly understand that the state is responsible for teacher raises. …We all know that process is unpredictable. Students at CMS are North Carolina’s responsibility, but they are also our own. This is truly a pressing local issue.”
North Carolina teachers are among the worst paid – the state ranks 48th – and many teachers told commissioners that they have to moonlight to make a decent living. Many said the bad pay may force them to leave the state, or teaching, for better pay.
Before the public hearing, about 100 teachers and parents stood along Fourth Street outside the Government Center with signs and chants of support for higher teacher pay.
Many of those teachers won’t be here next year, said Independence High history teacher Charlie Smith, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, which requested a 5 percent raise for teachers. “They will have left for other states that pay more money,” he said.
Langley Rehorn, a second-grader at Davidson Elementary School, may have stolen the show. With her mother holding her up to the lectern, she said: “Invest in my teachers, and invest in me.”
Angela Edwards took two buses and the Lynx Blue Line to get to the Government Center to tell commissioners about the success of Y Readers, the YMCA reading program that is helping her grandson read at a higher level. The program serves children in kindergarten to third grade who are behind in reading.
“I love my grandchild, and I love what Y Readers has done for him,” Edwards said. “He has problems retaining memory. But because of Y Readers, he’s going to be right where he needs to be.”
And Will Briggs, a seventh-grader at Community House Middle School, stood confidently at the lectern and told commissioners about the importance of school nurses. He talked about his sister Madison, a diabetic, and his brother Jake who was hurt in a playground accident – “thankfully it happened while the nurse was there.”
Will himself was injured when a soccer ball hit him in the head. He asked the board to support Diorio’s proposal.
Diorio recommended keeping the property tax rate stable and beginning to restore or enhance services cut when the economy tumbled. Her proposal gives CMS an increase of $26.8 million, or 7.4 percent over the current budget.
The money would fund everything CMS asked for – except the 3 percent raise.
That’s what brought out teachers and parents Wednesday.
The pay-raise issue found a new angle Tuesday after board Chairman Trevor Fuller and Vice Chairman Dumont Clarke said that they plan to ask the board for a November referendum to increase the county’s sales tax by a quarter-penny. Most of the money generated from the increase would go to supplement pay for CMS employees.
That didn’t blunt reactions from teachers and advocates.
Former school board Chairman Arthur Griffin said state legislators are engaged “in a lot of theater” in the debate over education. He implored commissioners to take a lead in the pay-raise issue.
After unveiling her recommended budget three weeks ago, Diorio said no one had disputed that teachers needed a raise. She said that traditionally the state pays for raises and the county provides supplements. To fund a pay raise would set a precedent that could harm Mecklenburg’s healthy economy, Diorio said.
Griffin told commissioners not to use “Raleigh” as a reason for not raising CMS salaries. “You need to show leadership to make sure we take care of all our children in Mecklenburg County,” he said.
“Teachers need a raise.”