County officials want to give CMS teachers a raise. Can they really do that?

Teachers and other supporters wearing "Red for Ed" packed a June 4 public hearing to urge Mecklenburg commissioners to give CMS a $40 million increase that would include local raises for teachers.
Teachers and other supporters wearing "Red for Ed" packed a June 4 public hearing to urge Mecklenburg commissioners to give CMS a $40 million increase that would include local raises for teachers.

Mecklenburg County commissioners say the voices of teachers and their advocates have been heard, as they agreed to give Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools an additional $6.9 million to bump up teacher salaries.

The decision won't be official until Tuesday's formal budget vote. And the local raise, once divvied up among more than 9,000 teachers, is more symbolic than life-changing.

But Democratic and Republican county commissioners say that symbolism is important at a time when teachers have marched by the thousands on Raleigh and mounted an ongoing campaign for better working conditions, more money for classroom supplies and wages that reflect the value of their work.

"It's clearly been important to the community and folks in my district," said Republican Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, who suggested a way to add the money without raising taxes beyond the 3/4-cent hike County Manager Dena Diorio has proposed.

There's a catch, though: County commissioners decide how much money to provide for the CMS budget, but they can't tell the district how to spend it.

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio has proposed the county's first property tax increase in five years. MARK HAMES File photo

While Diorio talks about what she does and doesn't expect to pay for — for instance, saying yes to more counselors and social workers but not to additional teachers who can help immigrant students learn English — she's just outlining her thinking, not issuing orders to CMS, she said Wednesday.

"Obviously they can take that money and spend it any way they want to," Diorio said. But she and commissioners say the same pressure that prompted commissioners to say they'll add money for raises would make it tough for CMS to shift that money.

"If they tried to use that for something else I think they'd be run out of town on a rail," said Democratic Commissioner Dumont Clarke.

School district leaders say they won't test that proposition.

"If funds are approved for salary supplements in 2018-2019 by the Mecklenburg County Commission, those funds will be used for salary supplements," CMS spokesman Tracy Russ said in a statement sent after the Observer asked about the commissioners' "straw poll" decision.

But district leaders will have to crunch the numbers from the state budget, which provides about 60 percent of CMS' operating budget, and whatever county commissioners approve next week before deciding exactly how to spend money in 2018-19.

Cheeseburger screen shot.JPG
Screen shot from the CMS budget presentation illustrating how the increase in Mecklenburg's teacher supplement would play out.

The state budget includes teacher raises averaging 6.5 percent. Mecklenburg County's supplement already adds 15 to 19 percent to teachers' state pay, depending on the level of experience and credentials. It would increase by 7 percent if commissioners approve the additional local money.

In making his case that the local raise isn't extravagant, Wilcox showed a slide of a fast-food cheeseburger and noted that the increase comes to $1.98 per teacher workday for a teacher with 10 years' experience.

How it adds up

But the combined raises will add up for some teachers. For instance, a CMS teacher with 10 years' experience and a bachelor's degree now earns $40,550 from the state and a $6,091 local supplement, just over 15 percent. The new state scale bumps up the 10-year pay to $45,000, and the additional year on the job would push that teacher to $46,000.

The 7 percent bump would push the local supplement to a little over 16 percent, or $7,394 for an 11-year teacher. That means the CMS teacher who earned $46,641 this year stands to make $53,394 next year.

However, not all teachers will see that kind of bump. Those with 25 years of experience or more will see their annual state pay increase by only $700 a year, with no raises built in for added experience.

What gets cut?

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and the school board will still have to make cuts to the budget plan unveiled in April.

CMS sought $468.5 million in county money, an increase of about $40 million. Diorio's plan plus the additional $6.9 million for teacher raises would give CMS an increase of just over $31 million.

In addition, commissioners said this week they want to maintain some control over the $4.6 million CMS is seeking for bulletproof doors, fences and other measures to fortify schools against attack. Commissioners agreed to put that money into a restricted contingency fund, to be released only after they see the district's plan for spending it.

Wilcox has said that's far less than what it would take to bring all of the districts 175-plus schools up to top security standards. He has declined to say which schools will get improvements or how he'll select them.

Commissioner Vilma Leake, a Democrat, said she wants to see those details before she provides the money, and her colleagues agreed.

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