As Charlotte faces poverty and violence, CMS seeks more counselors and social workers

Anticipated raises for teachers and other CMS employees are a big part of the increase in the 2017-18 budget.
Anticipated raises for teachers and other CMS employees are a big part of the increase in the 2017-18 budget.

A little after 6 a.m. Thursday, when Superintendent Ann Clark learned that a Garinger High School student had died of a gunshot wound, her first call was to line up extra counselors at school and a social worker to support the student’s family.

About 12 hours later, Clark made a public pitch for $4.5 million in county money to hire more such support staff: 42 more counselors, 12 social workers and six psychologists.

The presentation of her $1.4 billion budget plan, which includes a request for an additional $27 million from the county, comes as violent crime is spiking and the Charlotte community grapples with ways to fight poverty and boost economic opportunity.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, with 147,000 students and more than 18,000 employees, plays a central role in the region’s civic life and economy. Clark’s pitch notes that a recent report from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task force cited early childhood education, literacy and career-college readiness as keys to helping people escape poverty.

Raises for teachers and other employees drive about $10 million of the requested increase from Mecklenburg County. At this point it’s an estimate; state lawmakers will set the pay scales, and CMS will make sure that employees paid with local money get the same raises.

Anticipated growth in enrollment – including in charter schools, which get a per-pupil share for each Mecklenburg student who enrolls – is the other big factor driving up the CMS request.

Clark says the only new big-ticket item that’s not required is the increase in counselors, social workers and psychologists.

Support staff shape the lives of students and their families in a number of ways. Counselors ensure that students are taking the courses they need to succeed, graduate and get into college or a trade. Social workers help families living in turmoil and poverty get the support they need to let their children thrive in school. Support staff may be required to locate hard-to-reach parents, including those who don’t speak English.

Psychologists and other support staff counsel students who are at risk of harming themselves or others. They help troubled students control their behavior without getting suspended, which derails academic progress.

Because the state provides almost 60 percent of the CMS operating budget, big unknowns remain as legislators work toward their own budget plan. Among them is whether lawmakers will stick with a mandate for smaller K-3 classes, which would force CMS to hire more teachers with county money and/or displace art, music and physical education teachers to create more classroom jobs.

CMS employees may be disappointed that Clark’s plan doesn’t ask for more county money to boost pay beyond what the state sets. Clark plans to raise that issue as part of the Tuesday night board discussion, hoping that CMS and the county can work together on a plan to increase local teacher supplements – and perhaps create a new county supplement for employees such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers – in the next year or two.

Clark says she’s been working on the budget with incoming Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who takes over July 1 when Clark retires. The board will discuss the proposal and hold a public hearing on April 25, before voting May 9.

County commissioners will decide in June how much to provide for CMS.

County Manager Dena Diorio projects county revenue will grow by $35 million for the coming year. Clark’s request, if granted, would take up a big portion of that but would not force the county to raise taxes or cut other services.

Clark’s requested increase of $27 million from the county is less than half of the request from Wake Superintendent James Merrill. On Tuesday, he presented a request for $56.6 million more from Wake County, which includes money to hire additional K-3 teachers if the state doesn’t relax its mandate. His plan also calls for hiring more social workers and counselors.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

Learn more about CMS budget

CMS will hold information sessions from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at these dates and locations:

April 17, Bradley Middle School, 13345 Beatties Ford Road, Huntersville.

April 18, Eastway Middle School, 1501 Norland Road.

April 19, Robinson Middle School, 5925 Ballantyne Commons Parkway.