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Bid to restore CMS library jobs draws fire

A move to restore more than 100 school library jobs by pulling the money out of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' public relations department created strong debate before failing 6-3 Tuesday.

Board member Ken Gjertsen's motion came during the final sign-off on CMS's $1.2 billion budget, which tends to be routine after a spring and summer spent hashing out local spending. Opponents accused him of lobbing a last-minute bombshell without providing financial details.

“We've all had many opportunities to discuss this” before Tuesday night, Chairman Joe White said, calling Gjertsen's motion an attempt “to hijack a budget on the last night of a vote.”

But Gjertsen told colleagues and Superintendent Peter Gorman he had argued repeatedly for restoring the jobs that Gorman cut and “you didn't take me seriously.” Afterward he said he believed going into the meeting that he had the votes to restore the jobs.

Gorman announced in July that he would eliminate jobs for 11 librarians and 93.5 library assistants, along with dozens of other CMS jobs, because county commissioners didn't OK all the money CMS had asked for.

Gjertsen said Tuesday that if Gorman needed a suggestion on where to find money, he should take it out of the communications department budget: “As important as public relations is, I don't think it's as important as helping children get those books.”

Larry Gauvreau and Kaye McGarry, the other two Republicans on the school board, joined Gjertsen in voting for the motion and against the overall budget.

Gorman said it would cost $3.1 million to restore the jobs; the budget for the 29-member communications department, which includes CMS-TV and the staff that works with community partnerships, is $3.3 million.

“I don't think this is the way we make a budget. This is essentially wiping out a department,” board member Tom Tate said.

Member Molly Griffin called the last-minute proposal, which wasn't put in writing, “cavalier.”

“I rely on Dr. Gorman and (Chief Financial Officer Sheila) Shirley to have done everything they could to avoid these cuts,” Griffin said.

The final budget, approved 6-3, is about $21 million more than last year's, but down $27 million from the plan submitted to county commissioners in the spring. That's partly because the county gave CMS less than it asked for, but also because during the early planning CMS has to estimate how much will come in from the state, which provides about 60 percent of CMS's money.

The state total dropped, for instance, because state legislators voted for smaller raises than CMS projected.

Also Tuesday:

Gorman told the board that federal regulations apparently block CMS from auditing free-lunch applications to establish how widespread fraud and error is. Board member Trent Merchant had asked for the audit, saying the district lacks the solid data that would cut through emotion and rhetoric on the issue.

Gorman said he's gotten conflicting information from state and federal officials on whether CMS can pick a random sample of applications to verify. But he said state officials told him Tuesday afternoon that CMS could lose about $34 million in federal lunch subsidies if the district does anything more than the narrower check prescribed by federal regulations.

The board approved promoting Penni Beth Crisp, assistant principal at Torrence Creek Elementary, to principal of that school, and naming Jerri Haigler to head the district's new Parent University and Family and Community Services. Haigler was CMS's chief spokeswoman before leaving to work in community relations at Central Piedmont Community College.

Parents from Villa Heights Elementary, a small magnet school for gifted students, urged the board not to close their school and merge it with Lincoln Heights Elementary's gifted magnet. Those parents said Villa Heights is successful because it's so small and caters exclusively to magnet students.

But parents from Lincoln Heights, a larger school that mixes neighborhood and magnet students, applauded the possible merger and urged the board to pursue it.