Bump in CMS busing means $3 million in cuts to schools, technology

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ 2016-17 budget adds buses and drivers to expand access to magnet programs.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ 2016-17 budget adds buses and drivers to expand access to magnet programs. Observer file photo

Busing for choice is expensive.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools learned that 14 years ago, when the “choice plan” replaced court-ordered desegregation and transportation costs spiked.

Now the proposed 2016-17 budget includes an additional $6 million to give more students access to magnet programs, college-based high schools and other opt-in schools around the county. To help offset that, Superintendent Ann Clark and her staff have cut almost $3 million from technology, schools, central offices and other departments.

CMS leaders hope Mecklenburg County commissioners will increase the budget to cover the other $3 million, saying it’s too late to back down on the plan that adds dozens of buses and drivers. If not – and commissioners have voiced early skepticism of the district’s request for an additional $23 million total – more cuts could be coming.

Choice plays a crucial role in the school board’s vision of the future. Clark and many board members see opt-in schools as a way to compete with charter and private schools, provide academic specialties and ensure that disadvantaged students aren’t trapped in high-poverty, low-performing neighborhood schools.

The emphasis on choice seems to have reassured some who feared the district’s ongoing review of student assignment would bring massive reassignment to increase economic and racial diversity in schools.

But it comes at a cost. This year, the stand-out item is a big bump in transportation, during a year when Clark is holding off on other new spending and enrollment growth is leveling off.

Magnet busing is always more expensive than busing from assigned zones, because it involves students scattered across larger areas. Some neighborhoods see a parade of buses every morning and evening, taking small groups of students to and from several schools.

During the recession, CMS cut costs by requiring some magnet students to get to central “shuttle stops” for pickup and dropoff. Some families ended up loving that system because it provided a straight shot to a distant school, rather than requiring a longer ride with multiple stops along the way. But others were shut out if they couldn’t get their kids to and from shuttle stops, which could be miles from home.

The school board voted in November to let magnet families choose between neighborhood or shuttle stops next year. The transportation budget is scheduled to rise by almost $7 million next year, with $6 million attributed to the expanded plan and the rest to rising costs.

While $6 million sounds like a lot, it comes in the context of a $1.4 billion proposed budget. CMS hopes to get a total of $425 million from the county.

The district’s 283-page budget book outlines the following cuts to offset the new busing plan:

▪ Technology services: $835,539 (out of a $17 million budget). Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley said that includes elimination of three positions that became obsolete when the district finished its conversion to the PowerSchool system, as well as reductions in contracted services and school printers.

▪ Schools: $643,689 (out of a $780 million budget). Shirley said that includes local money that was saved when the current year’s enrollment fell short of projections.

▪ Human resources: $266,699 (out of a $10 million budget) for contracted services.

▪ Chief technology officer: $187,875 (out of an $883,000 budget) for salaries and benefits.

▪ Bright Beginnings: $179,573 (out of a $22.5 million budget). Shirley said that includes local money that was saved because of this year’s enrollment shortfall, along with cuts to professional development and software contracts.

Smaller cuts came from a range of departments, including the school board, building services and communication.

The actual cost of the busing expansion won’t be clear until next year, after students report to schools and lock in their transportation choices. Magnet enrollment could be larger or smaller than anticipated, as could the number choosing to ride a bus.

Meanwhile, the school board continues working toward a revised assignment plan that could take effect as early as 2017-18. Clark and board members have talked about adding opportunities for students to choose programs that will prepare them for college and careers, with current offerings ranging from foreign language immersion to math-science programs to career training tracks.

Those programs may also bring costs in coming years, not only for busing but for high-tech equipment, specialized staff and new settings.

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

Weigh in on budget

The school board will hold a public hearing on the 2016-17 budget proposal at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the auditorium of Butler High School, 1810 Matthews-Mint Hill Road, Matthews. Call 980-343-5139 by noon Tuesday to speak or sign up outside the auditorium before the meeting starts.

Learn more about the budget by clicking “2016-17 Budget/Capital Plan” at

CMS will also hold three public engagement forums on the budget next week:

▪ 6 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at Hornets Nest Elementary, 6700 Beatties Ford Road.

▪ 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Croft Elementary, 4911 Hucks Road.

▪ 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Briarwood Elementary, 1001 Wilann Drive.