CMS board reluctantly endorses ‘lean’ request for $23 million hike

Raises for teachers and other Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees are the biggest variable in the budget.
Raises for teachers and other Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees are the biggest variable in the budget.

The school board voted Tuesday to make the case to county commissioners – and, indirectly, to Mecklenburg County’s taxpayers – for a $23 million bump in education spending next year. But several members said they’d like to push for a bigger budget.

“I’d go beyond saying it’s a lean budget request. I think it’s a timid budget request,” Vice Chair Elyse Dashew said of Superintendent Ann Clark’s $1.4 billion budget plan.

The board voted 8-1 to ask for $425 million from the county, a 5.6 percent increase over the current year. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will submit its request to the county next week, with commissioners voting on a budget in June.

Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who cast the only opposing vote, said she couldn’t support a budget that lacks money to fix failing schools, expand prekindergarten and increase the number of school social workers, psychologists and counselors.

“The needs of our students continue not to be met,” Ellis-Stewart said.

Others echoed that concern but voted for the plan, saying it recognizes economic and political realities. North Carolina’s school districts don’t have taxing authority, so they must rely on state and county officials for money to run schools.

CMS has also asked commissioners to put an $805 million school bond referendum on the November ballot, a method of asking voters to guarantee repayment of borrowing to build and renovate schools. Many commissioners, who are reluctant to take on commitments that could require a property tax hike, have been skeptical of both requests.

County officials have discussed funding formulas for CMS that would yield increases ranging from $5 million to $11 million, far less than district officials say they need just to keep up with rising expenses and enrollment growth (including charter schools, which get a share of the county money).

$425 million CMS request to county

$23 million increase over this year

146,644 projected CMS enrollment

Last week the Wake County school board, which runs the only North Carolina district bigger than CMS, approved a request for a $35.7 million increase in county money. However, the total request for Wake schools, which expect 12,600 more students than CMS next year, is $421.7 million, lower than the CMS county request.

$422 million Wake schools’ request to county

$35.7 million increase over this year

159,250 projected Wake enrollment

Leaders of both districts say they’re trying to catch up with pre-recession spending levels while coping with growth, rising student needs and increased competition from charter schools, which are run by independent boards. Both note that an influx of federal money designed to limit damage to schools during the recession has gone away, leaving state and local governments to fill the gap.

The biggest variable – raises for teachers and other district employees – remains in the hands of state lawmakers, who are working on updates to the two-year budget passed last year. Clark said that makes it difficult to push for new spending, because state raises that top Clark’s estimate of 3 percent would require even more county money.

“I think the big question is what the salary increase is going to look like,” she said.

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

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