Money struggles between the school board and Mecklenburg County commissioners are as much a part of spring as pollen and cankerworms – but Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has ratcheted up the tension with a push for an $805 million bond referendum this fall.
Commissioners voiced bipartisan resistance to the request last week, even as the school board held a hearing in which parents talked about the need for new schools and improvements at old ones. County officials said they’ve always planned to look at another CMS bond plan in 2017, along with other county construction needs.
“I don’t begrudge them articulating their needs,” said Chairman Trevor Fuller, a Democrat. “But it steps a little beyond the bounds to tell us how to address that.”
Republican Bill James called the 2016 bond request bullying and badgering on the part of CMS.
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“Somebody’s going to have to exhibit some steel and grit and essentially stand up to them,” James said. “If we tell them 2017, it’s 2017.”
The tension comes as CMS tackles two other thorny issues: a superintendent search and a review of student assignment. Both are on this week’s agenda, along with Superintendent Ann Clark’s presentation of a 2016-17 budget.
For months, school officials have talked about rallying Mecklenburg’s elected officials to support the student assignment review in the context of broader social and economic issues. Instead, they’re facing suburban talk of splitting the district and criticism from commissioners who say CMS isn’t working with them.
The perennial money struggles come from the way North Carolina pays for public education. The school board has responsibility for that task, but no ability to independently raise money. CMS must go to the county for all of its construction money and about one-third of its operating budget.
Your facility needs are now greater than they were a decade ago, and this need impacts your ability to succeed with kids.
Mark Elgart of AdvanceED, reporting to CMS board
Commissioners control the budget – and must face the voters if they raise property taxes – but have little say in what happens after they give CMS money. Commissioners often complain that they’re made to look like tightwads when CMS encourages its employees and families to lobby for higher spending.
At last week’s meeting, commissioners said they’re already getting calls and email from CMS supporters pushing for bonds. After Clark presents her budget proposal Tuesday, that activism is likely to extend to money for teacher raises and other CMS programs.
County officials say they don’t dispute the need for new schools and renovations, just the timing.
Somebody has to be the big brother. Somebody has to be responsible.
County Manager Dena Diorio
County Manager Dena Diorio said CMS always knew the $290 million bond package voters approved in 2013 was supposed to last four years. The county has been doling that money out slowly, leaving most of it still available, as part of a strategy to hold down taxes, she told commissioners.
“If we told (CMS) they could spend $197 million in one year, they’d be off to the races,” Diorio said.
Commissioner Vilma Leake, a Democrat and former school board member, said she wants the school board “to work with us and not work against us.”
“That concerns me that your advice was given and not taken seriously,” Leake said.
Is it in writing?
CMS board Chair Mary McCray, on county’s contention that CMS agreed to wait four years
But school board Chair Mary McCray and member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said there was no agreement to wait four years for another bond issue. “Is it in writing?” McCray asked.
When asked about the strategy of pushing for a 2016 bond vote, rather than waiting for the county’s 2017 timetable, several board members emphasized the district’s needs.
In a recent accreditation review, the outside experts who scrutinized CMS urged the board to accelerate its construction timeline.
“You had facility needs a decade ago. Your facility needs are now greater than they were a decade ago, and this need impacts your ability to succeed with kids,” said Mark Elgart of AdvanceED, the group that did the review. “The return on investment is huge over time.”
“The need is real. The need is growing,” board member Eric Davis said. “Our job as a board is to be upfront about what the needs are.”
If the school board does persuade county commissioners to put school bonds on this year’s ballot, the next question would be how voters respond.
In my opinion, our strategy is not going to lead to the desired outcome.
CMS board member Rhonda Lennon, on pushing for a 2016 bond vote
Board member Rhonda Lennon said she won’t vote to ask for bonds because she believes the district needs to resolve questions about student assignment first. But she said she expects to be the lone “no” vote.
“In my opinion, our strategy is not going to lead to the desired outcome,” she said.
Diorio raised that concern as well in her discussion with commissioners. Commissioner Pat Cotham, a Democrat, speculated that CMS bonds could also suffer from the fact that voters approved a $2 billion statewide bond issue in March. That money doesn’t go to CMS and isn’t repaid with county taxes, but Cotham said voters may not make the distinction.
“To come back a few months later and do an enormous one, that’s a lot,” she said.
Board members had initially said they scheduled last week’s bond hearing at a special time to clear the way for a vote Tuesday. But as of Friday, that wasn’t on this week’s agenda. Instead, Clark will present her proposal for operating money, with the board voting at a later meeting on a bond request.
This week in CMS
Superintendent search: Special board meeting at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to interview prospective search consultants. Room 280, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.
Regular meeting: Starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the meeting chamber of the Government Center (delayed start because of the special session earlier). Includes presentation of the superintendent’s 2016-17 operating budget, a public hearing on a new policy regarding disposal of surplus real estate and a general public comment period. Sign up to speak by calling 980-343-5139 before noon Tuesday or on site before the meeting starts.
Student assignment: The board’s policy committee will discuss guiding principles for student assignment at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in room 527 at the Government Center.