Pay attention. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is preparing for big budget cuts and “every area of CMS will be affected,” said Superintendent Peter Gorman. Your child or the child of someone you know will be affected. That means this community's well-being will be as well.
What's on the line? Middle school athletic programs could be shut down. Summer school could be cut. The only students taking Advanced Placement exams could be those whose families can afford to pay for them. Classes could get bigger if staffing levels are reduced.
All that and more was put on the table before school board members Friday at a packed special meeting as CMS begins looking at cutting $53 million in state and county money from its operating budget for next year. Already, Mecklenburg County wants $2.6 million returned from its allocation for the current school year.
These are the realities of an imploding economy. For Mecklenburg County that has resulted in an estimated deficit of nearly $57.1 million for this fiscal year. The state faces a $2 billion shortfall.
The schools have faced budget cuts before, and have had to make choices some residents haven't liked. But this year those cuts will have major implications for this community's children, and for the community itself, for years to come.
Eliminating 10 Bright Beginnings pre-kindergarten classes, another proposed reduction, is a case in point. When those classes go away, low-income youngsters who need the early academic help but can't afford to pay for it won't get the preparation to start kindergarten and first grade on solid footing. That poor start often dogs students throughout their school years. Is it worth the $373,000 saved?
And some school board members raised legitimate concerns about cutting athletic programs. They help make school relevant and interesting to a great many kids. Cutting them could boost the dropout rate, putting kids on the street where they are susceptible to crime and gang activity. Isn't that counterproductive?
The cuts should protect the system's priorities based on strategic plans, Gorman said. He's right. Among those priorities should be continuing to provide resources and incentives to attract and keep the top principals and highly effective teachers at low-performing schools. A report from outside consultants examining the strategies and resource uses of CMS validated those strategies.
The economic stimulus plan will help some. Reportedly CMS would get $96.3 million over the next two years if the current plan is approved by the Senate. But the money is tagged for specific needs, and isn't enough to bridge the growing deficits. So cuts are probable regardless.
As Mecklenburg residents, none of us can afford to sit on the sidelines as CMS sets priorities and decides what cuts to make. The school board and the school superintendent should hear from us about what those priorities should be. We have a responsibility to make sure the priorities reflect our values and the best interests of this community's children.