Democrats Jennifer Roberts and Dan Clodfelter doubled down on their argument over school funding Wednesday when they met for the first, and last, debate of their runoff campaign for Charlotte mayor.
The candidates also sparred over economic development but agreed on other issues including the streetcar, food trucks and the need for affordable housing. They appeared before a Spirit Square audience in a live radio debate sponsored by the Observer and WFAE.
The candidates square off in a Tuesday runoff. The winner will face Republican Edwin Peacock in November.
The issue of school funding emerged this week when Clodfelter’s campaign sent out a mailer that argued that Mecklenburg County commissioners cut education funding to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools while Roberts chaired the board. Her campaign manager accused Clodfelter of “lying.”
“I had to correct my record,” Roberts said. “While I was on the county commission, we increased funding for CMS by $89 million.”
As chair, Roberts said, the board of county commissioners increased funding by $17 million. “And if you look at the way the flier presented the numbers, they only added the negatives,” she said.
Clodfelter fired back. “You’ve got to be careful how you use budget numbers,” he said. “Every one of the facts was verified and cross-checked.”
Figures from CMS show the county cut spending three times over seven years. The cuts totaled $56 million. But the same figures also show appropriations increased three times, rising $17 million from $337 million to $354 million. Much of time coincided with the recession.
According to CMS, per pupil spending rose for the first four years of Roberts’ tenure but dropped in the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years before rising again in 2012.
Each candidate was asked why they’ve made education a focus of their campaign even though the city – and the mayor – have little direct influence on public schools.
“If we’re talking about spreading opportunity to all corners of the city, there’s a need for great schools,” said Roberts, adding that she would raise private money for after-school programs.
Clodfelter, who was appointed mayor in the spring of 2014, said the city already spends more than $1 million a year on after-school programs. He said the city could help schools by spending more on school resource officers and provide resources to help CMS overcome the “digital divide.”
Clodfelter also said the mayor can provide support and leadership on the issue of student assignment.
“Mayors in past years … spoke openly to the community about the need to get the desegregation issue right in this community,” he said. “The mayor needs to step up now and start giving support to the CMS school board as they wrestle with that most difficult challenge.”
The candidates addressed other issues:
▪ Economic development. Roberts touted the county’s role in helping attract 5,000 new jobs during her tenure as a county commissioner.
According to the Charlotte Chamber, a net total of 86,314 jobs were created during Roberts’ time on the board.
Clodfelter said he’s met with international investors and said the city could see new jobs in the financial and tech industries. He appeared to downplay the county’s role, saying the county had no real economic function. The county hired a new economic development director this year, though in the past it has partnered with the city and others to offer incentive grants.
The new economic development director, Peter Zeiler, has said the county had been a “silent partner.”
Roberts said the county has played a role, adding later that she joined previous mayors and Chamber officials in meeting with new business recruits.
▪ The streetcar and transit. Both supported the streetcar as an economic development tool.
“The streetcar takes transit to places light rail is unable to go,” Clodfelter said. “The streetcar is actually the only option for permanent rail in large parts of the community.”
Roberts said the streetcar could boost economic development and connect the Blue Line light rail to an eventual Red Line commuter train.
Asked about rapid transit to the airport, she said the city should re-evaluate its long-range transit plan. Clodfelter said the city’s planned Gateway transit center could be the impetus to get a rail line to the airport.
▪ Affordable housing. The candidates were in agreement about the availability of affordable housing in the wake of a proliferation of apartment complexes and multi-use development.
“Somewhere over the years, policy disappeared,” Clodfelter said. “We need to revisit criteria the city used to have (for affordable housing).”
Roberts agreed that the city suffers from a shortage of affordable housing, saying the city should consider looking at transit corridors to ensure workers in every part of the city have access to affordable housing.
▪ Food trucks. As developers plan to build on the South End site of the popular Food Truck Friday, the candidates were asked where the trucks could relocate.
“We are going to have to work with the community to find how we (develop) … without knocking the food trucks out,” Roberts said. “That’s a growing industry. I’m very supportive of finding a place for the food trucks.”
Clodfelter said city planning staff is working on an ordinance that would allow food trucks to operate all over town. He mentioned the old Eastland Mall property.
“I’d like to see us develop an ordinance to allow food trucks all across the city, not just in one location,” he said.
▪ Clodfelter’s decision. The mayor rejected the claim that he had promised other council members he would not run for mayor when they appointed him in 2014. Fellow Democrats David Howard and Michael Barnes have said that’s what he told them.
“What I actually said was, ‘I don’t have any plans right now to run again,’” Clodfelter said Wednesday. “I didn’t know what I was getting into fully. I didn’t know whether I would be any good at it. I clearly said at the time, ‘I’m going to reassess that question at the end of the year. I may change and have a different approach to it at the end of the year.”