Every year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Mecklenburg County participate in an elaborate budget dance. The schools ask for millions of dollars in increased operating costs. The county lops millions of dollars off that request. No one ends up particularly happy.
This year, CMS has requested an additional $27 million in operating money for 2017-2018, a 6.5 percent increase to accommodate rising costs and growing enrollment. The county is initially offering to pay $15.3 million of that. Commissioners have yet to weigh in with what they think.
It’s a good bet CMS asks for more than it has to have each year, the way any smart negotiator would. But $11.7 million – the difference between what CMS wants and what the county is proposing to pay – is quite a lot. And if you care about Mecklenburg’s public schools, that gap is especially galling when you consider what the county has decided is worth tens of millions more:
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The county’s proposed capital budget includes $71.25 million next year and $47.5 million in 2020 for a grand, new soccer stadium in Elizabeth that would be home to a Major League Soccer franchise (if Charlotte is awarded one). After 2020, the county will get $75 million back plus interest over 25 years from a prospective ownership group led by Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports, so long as the franchise doesn’t fold and/or get into a legal disagreement with the county, as often happens with these stadium agreements.
County officials see this as a way to get the decaying Memorial Stadium replaced and have someone else pitch in with the cost. But that still leaves Mecklenburg on the hook for tens of millions of dollars.
A caveat: The money for a permanent soccer stadium comes from a different part of the budget than school funding, so one expense doesn’t directly take away from another. But all of it involves our tax dollars and is a reflection of the county’s priorities. Should Mecklenburg be nickel-and-diming schools while shoveling out money for a new sports facility?
Economists overwhelmingly agree that using public dollars to build such stadiums is a bad investment. A soccer stadium does little to grow the local economy, they say, because research shows that people spend a finite amount of money on entertainment. They don’t spend extra to see sports.
Not all stadiums are bad investments; the city’s uptown arena, for example, has helped attract significant events and enhance Charlotte’s brand. Soccer advocates say that, similarly, an MLS franchise might appeal to the young professionals Charlotte wants to attract. That’s a lot of money to spend on a guess, however, especially when we’d also guess that to keep young families in Charlotte, you’d want a school system that’s as strong as it could be.
The increase CMS is requesting includes the cost of preparing for the 2018 changes in student assignment. It doesn’t include a $937 million bond package to build 10 schools and repair several older facilities. County Manager Dena Diorio recommended that package go before voters in a November referendum.
Mecklenburg officials, however, have already decided that soccer is important enough for public dollars. They’re far from the first to overpay for professional sports. We wish they wouldn’t clutch their wallets so tightly for something far more valuable.