Local

Here’s what the record shows about Jennifer Roberts on education budget cuts

Dan Clodfelter and Jennifer Roberts before the start of their mayoral runoff debate on Wednesday at McGlohon Theater in Spirit Square. The candidates sparred over education and the economy ahead of their primary runoff next week.
Dan Clodfelter and Jennifer Roberts before the start of their mayoral runoff debate on Wednesday at McGlohon Theater in Spirit Square. The candidates sparred over education and the economy ahead of their primary runoff next week. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

One of the biggest questions to emerge in the now-contentious Charlotte mayoral runoff is whether Jennifer Roberts really cut funding to education during the eight years she was a Mecklenburg County commissioner.

It was the first salvo from incumbent Mayor Dan Clodfelter, who opposes Roberts in a Democratic runoff on Tuesday. The winner will go on to face Republican Edwin Peacock in the November contest.

Clodfelter’s camp this week distributed a mailer that claims Roberts cut funding to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools by more than $56 million. His communications director said Roberts “continues to lie” about her record.

Roberts fired back, saying Clodfelter isn’t presenting the full picture and neglects to mention that, during her tenure, the board increased education spending by $89 million.

The Observer examined county and school budget documents from Roberts’ years on the board (2005-2013) to see how much of CMS’ county dollars for its operating budget were spent, cut or increased. Per-pupil numbers come from CMS and do not include what the state gave the schools.

Here’s what the record shows:

Recession

Yes, Roberts did sign off on reducing money for CMS.

Here’s how it happened:

Funding for CMS had been steadily increasing until 2009 when the county started feeling the affects of the economic downturn. Faced with diminishing revenues and an increased demand for services, county leaders made unpopular decisions.

“We were forced with a situation where we had set the tax rate and because revenues had dried up, we didn’t have the revenue coming in,” said Republican Commissioner Bill James. “We had to make adjustments to the budget (and) some of those adjustments included taking back some of the money from CMS.”

Commissioners have always ranked funding for schools as a high priority. Half of the budget, including capital expenditures, is devoted to education.

Every department saw a reduction.

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio

CMS asked the county to keep its $351 million budget intact for fiscal year 2010, which went into effect July 1, 2009. Instead, the county took away nearly $34 million, reducing CMS’ total operating budget to about $316 million. Per-pupil spending, which had also been climbing year-over-year, went down from $2,621 in 2009 to $2,374 in 2010.

That same year, state lawmakers passed a budget that cut about $225 million from public schools.

The county’s revenues in fiscal year 2010 were $51.4 million below budget.

In Mecklenburg County, CMS did not suffer alone. The overall county budget fell 5 percent, from $1.5 billion to $1.42 billion. County department budgets were cut, nonprofits got 4.5 percent less, libraries closed and more than 200 employees lost their jobs.

“Every department saw a reduction,” said County Manager Dena Diorio, who then was the county’s finance director. “The ones we considered discretionary were cut significantly. Parks and rec was cut by 50 percent. Libraries, by 50 percent. HR, by 50 percent.”

It doesn’t really matter whether the Democrats are in charge or the Republicans are in charge.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James

James said county leaders were left with little choice because they could not change the property tax rate midyear.

“The only thing you can do is adjust expenditures,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter whether the Democrats are in charge or the Republicans are in charge. If you’ve only collected $10 and you try to spend $12, then you have to cut that extra $2 out of the budget.”

But Maria Smithson, Clodfelter’s communications director, said, “No other North Carolina county made such extreme budget cuts to schools during that time period. The cuts were very real, and they were severe.”

The cuts were very real, and they were severe

Maria Smithson, Clodfelter campaign

The down cycle continues

The next year saw little improvement. The county struggled to recover from the downturn and saw its budget drop to $1.35 billion. As a result, leaders ordered $71 million in overall cuts.

CMS funding dropped to $307 million, and per-pupil spending fell to $2,228.

County employees were placed on a wage freeze. More than 400 were laid off.

That year, Roberts was quoted in the Observer as saying, “Our choices are not really choices. But rather attempts to do the least harm.”

Trending upward

The trend reversed in 2012. Emboldened by a sluggish, yet recovering, economy, county leaders started spending big again.

The county’s conservative “debt diet” helped it keep its prized AAA bond rating. Leaders set aside money for building projects, but a new ranking system meant not all CMS projects were funded as quickly as the district may have wanted.

Per-pupil spending went up to $2,379 and CMS’ budget expanded to more than $332 million. Roberts was ousted as chair in December 2011 but served on the board for another year. In the next budget cycle, for fiscal year 2013, the county gave the schools about $337 million and per-pupil spending hit $2,390.

About that $89 million boost...

In defending her record, Roberts said during a debate this week that schools funding went up by $89 million while she was on the board.

That number is problematic.

A working document Clodfelter’s campaign sent to the Observer included a budget approved after Roberts left the board. Roberts’ campaign used that number to come up with the $89 million boost. If the correct numbers were used, it would have shown a $72 million “increase,” although those numbers do not take into account recession-era funding cuts.

“Jennifer Roberts is running a positive campaign and is proud of her record of raising education by over $72 million during her time on the county commission,” her campaign manager Jacob Becklund said Friday after being informed of the Observer’s figure.

Roberts’ camp has argued that Clodfelter’s campaign tallied the $56 million in cuts without accounting for any funding boosts.

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

  Comments