March 18, 2014

CMS needs, wishes come with big price tag: $45 million more

Superintendent Heath Morrison emphasized that his 2014-15 proposal won’t be ready until April 8, and the unknowns remain significant.

Meeting Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ plans for staff raises and educational improvements while keeping up with growth and rising costs could require an increase of $45 million or more from Mecklenburg County, officials said Tuesday.

That would be an increase of almost 13 percent, far more than CMS has gotten in the last several years. Superintendent Heath Morrison emphasized that his 2014-15 proposal won’t be ready until April 8, and the unknowns remain significant.

One of the biggest questions is whether the state legislature, which convenes in mid-May, will provide across-the-board raises for teachers and other state employees. Boosting pay for the district’s workforce of more than 18,000 is a top priority, Morrison and board members said at the Tuesday budget session.

“Absolutely that needs to be No. 1  on the list,” said Vice Chairman Tim Morgan.

The presentation cited $17 million to $18 million in county money as a preliminary estimate for raises, but the actual number will be shaped by state decisions. It would cover a 2 percent raise for all employees if the state contributed nothing.

Most CMS employees have gotten only one raise, of 3 percent, in the last five years. Last year they got nothing.

Other top issues include increasing the number of counselors, psychologists and social workers who can meet students’ social and emotional needs; doing more to help students master reading; and continuing to expand magnets and academic options. Cost estimates attached to those areas in Tuesday’s presentation were labeled “examples for illustration purposes only.”

Morrison and his top budget staff said CMS will need an increase of $5.7 million just to cover rising costs to continue existing programs, plus $9.5 million more to cover costs for growth – with most of it passed along to charter schools that serve Mecklenburg students.

CMS projects that three-quarters of next year’s public school enrollment growth will come from students enrolling in charter schools. The budget projection calls for almost 2,300 more charter students, based on approved plans for 11 new schools, with CMS adding only about 750.

Those numbers are based primarily on the new charter schools’ projected enrollment. If they fall short, which often happens in the first year, CMS could end up with more growth.

Charter schools are independently run public schools authorized by the state. Local school districts are required to pass along a per-pupil share of county education money for students in charter schools. This year CMS has 142,612 students, while 10,823 Mecklenburg students are enrolled in charter schools.

County Manager Dena Diorio said CMS’ request would be evaluated with all the other requests before she presents her recommended budget to county commissioners in late May.

Diorio said the county is expecting about $35 million in surplus money this year, but county commissioners have expressed the need to give some of that back to taxpayers in a tax cut in the coming budget.

“It’s all going to be based on the merits of what they’re asking for,” Diorio said.

The unveiling of preliminary numbers is the first step in a complex annual dance that ends with approval of a CMS budget, usually in late summer or fall.

The school board depends on state lawmakers, Mecklenburg County commissioners and the federal government for its budget, which tops $1.2 billion. Just under one-third – $356.5 million this year – comes from the county. That portion tends to generate the most local debate and provides money that can give CMS flexibility to launch new efforts.

Morrison cited past years as “a reality check” on hopes for a big increase. After two years of county cuts during the recession, CMS has gotten increases ranging from $9 million to $26 million for the past three years. Last year the district got a bump of $19.1 million.

Board member Tom Tate urged Morrison to craft a budget that reflects the district’s full needs rather than trying to guess how much county officials will be willing to provide.

The district could offset new spending with cuts, but those would be painful, Morrison said. Increasing class sizes, cutting custodians and/or reducing central administration could save millions but would create new problems, Morrison said. He told the board he cited those examples because they’re the things people most often suggest, not because he plans to make those cuts.

“They are already things that we have done and done often,” he said.

Commissioner Bill James doesn’t anticipate the county giving CMS that kind of money. He said if Diorio recommends a 2.5-cent tax cut and giving CMS $5 million to $7 million more, he’d be in favor of that. “But I’m not going to vote to give CMS $47 million,” he said. Staff writer David Perlmutt contributed.

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