For the first time ever, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is planning for an enrollment slump, albeit a small one.
But in an early budget workshop, officials said costs will continue to rise in the coming year, for everything from state-mandated raises to opening new schools to passing through money to charter schools.
And while he didn’t lay out specifics, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he expects to ask the county for money to make schools safer, provide more social and emotional support for students and help educators cross cultural boundaries.
“Clearly security is something that is weighing heavily on my mind right now,” Wilcox told the school board Tuesday, not quite two weeks after 17 students and faculty were killed in a Florida school shooting.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board met Tuesday for its first public discussion of the 2018-19 budget, which will be Wilcox’s first since taking office in July. He’ll give the board his recommendation in April, and the board must take its request to Mecklenburg County commissioners in May.
The projected decline of about 200 students – CMS has just over 147,000 this year – comes from a combination of demographic trends and charter school growth. The early projections call for an additional 1,800 Mecklenburg students to choose charter schools next year, up from this year’s 18,500.
Charter schools are independent public schools that receive a per-pupil share of county spending on education. The CMS request to Mecklenburg County commissioners will include more than $50 million that must be passed through to those schools, based on the number of Mecklenburg students attending.
The leveling off of enrollment, combined with construction of new schools, could reduce the district’s reliance on mobile classrooms, which have raised fears about school safety. While schools are generally locked, with video cameras and “panic buttons” to alert law enforcement, CMS has more than 1,000 portable classrooms sitting outside those buildings, often with little protection.
On Monday Wilcox and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney fielded questions about school safety in a 30-minute Facebook Live session. Both said changes are needed, from better training for school staff to physical improvements such as campus fending.
Five years ago, after 26 students and teachers were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School, then-Superintendent Heath Morrison proposed a $13 million plan to put 8-foot chain-link fences around school campuses. That plan was dropped amid financial, practical and aesthetic concerns.
In the Facebook video Putney said it’s time to figure out how to fence campuses, rather than debate whether to do so: “I don’t think the public’s going to be satisfied with us talking about it this time.”
At Tuesday’s session, Wilcox said the CMS Police Department also needs to hire a detective with expertise in protecting schools from shooting attacks.
Wilcox and board members agreed that adding school counselors, social workers and psychologists will be a top budget priority. District and county officials laid out a four-year plan to add 240, but in the first three years only 92 have been funded, said Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley.
And Wilcox said he wants to expand cultural proficiency training for teachers in an effort to head off some of the racial disparities he highlighted in last week’s “Breaking the Link” report. That report highlighted some of the ways black and Hispanic students have fewer opportunities and worse outcomes in CMS, especially if they’re in high-poverty schools.