Mecklenburg County commissioners agreed Friday they need to do something to fix the way they fund Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools but left their budget retreat with no clear plan on how to get it done.
Instead, they decided to form a committee to develop better ideas.
Commissioner Jim Puckett, a former school board member, proposed this month giving CMS slightly less than 50 percent of the county’s revenue each year so the schools themselves decide what to fund or not fund. That would eliminate the need for CMS to make large budget requests to the county.
“Funding in Mecklenburg County is based on how good of a salesman the superintendent is,” Puckett said.
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At what point do we say to them you have to be good stewards…and if you don’t use it, you should send it back to us?
Mecklenburg County commissioner Ella Scarborough
But commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller said Friday he worried a percentage-based model – a means to “merely avoid the difficult conversations” – would push the county out of education decisions.
“If we simply appropriate money based on a percentage, we are in a sense abdicating some part of that responsibility, in my view,” he said.
CMS projected its student body would grow to nearly 148,000 this academic year but later reported that it ended up with 146,140 students, adding only 777 students to the district after expecting to add 2,400. The county gave CMS $5.8 million to cover new schools and the 2,400 figure. Since enrollment fell short, CMS got an extra $3.9 million from the county.
County Manager Dena Diorio told commissioners the extra money went to the schools’ fund balance, or reserves. When some on the board pressed about whether the county asked CMS to return the cash, the answer was no “because in years when student enrollment is greater than what they forecast, they don’t come back and ask us for more money,” she said.
Dissatisfied, commissioner Ella Scarborough asked, “At what point do we say to them, ‘You have to be good stewards…and if you don’t use it, you should send it back to us?’”
Diorio said staff could find out if CMS’ fund balance is getting too high, prompting Scarborough to say that she is “unwilling to give them any additional dollars until we can get that figured out.”
School board Chairwoman Mary McCray said CMS is not the only school district to miss its student enrollment forecasts. Several factors can contribute to a shortfall, such as an uptick or downturn in apartment rentals. “It’s an unpredictable business because you’re dealing with people,” she said.
Considering the options
County Budget Director Michael Bryant Bryant gave three funding scenarios showing effects on the county’s 2017 budget if a full 50 percent of it were devoted to education without raising property taxes.
Today, about 44 percent of the county’s budget funds just CMS, while a smaller percentage goes to Central Piedmont Community College, community service grants and organizations such as Read Charlotte.
▪ Allot $445 million to education but cut the county’s budget by $12.4 million by reducing library hours and funding for nonprofit grants, economic development and criminal justice services.
▪ Give education the same amount but cut $20 million from some education services, forcing the county to “identify winners and losers,” Bryant said.
▪ Give $582 million to education, would cut the county’s budget by $21.3 million.
Scarborough bristled at the thought of library services being reduced. Some options troubled commissioner George Dunlap because they account for a 3 percent growth in county revenue, which is uncertain.
McCray, who arrived at the retreat in time to hear funding scenarios, said she liked some options and looks forward to a conversation with commissioners, but not a debate where facts get “twisted.”
“Sometimes, we tend to feel like we’re treated like their children,” McCray said.