Hope seemed slim Tuesday for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ request that county commissioners put school bonds on the November ballot and add $23 million to the district’s operating budget.
The school board and Superintendent Ann Clark got no encouragement – and a lot of public scolding – at a two-hour meeting with Mecklenburg County commissioners, who control all construction money and about one-third of the district’s annual operating budget.
Tension between the two boards is a traditional part of spring budget season. But Tuesday’s session brought an unusually intense barrage of bipartisan criticism, starting with a lecture from commissioners’ Chairman Trevor Fuller, a Democrat.
Fuller said it would be “criminal” and “the height of irresponsibility” to ask voters to approve $805 million in bonds – that is, borrowing repaid by taxpayers – while CMS remains in the midst of a student assignment review. Clark said new construction projects will help CMS expand magnet seats, which the school board has identified as a key part of the expected revisions.
I’m not afraid of commitment, but we better make sure we know what we’re doing.
Mecklenburg commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller
But Fuller said he remains unconvinced that more magnet seats will make a difference: “I don’t see how that reduces income segregation in our schools. I don’t see how that reduces racial segregation in our schools.”
He said the district’s needs are real: “When we’re on the same page about what we’re trying to accomplish, I’m going to stand strong with you. We can get there, but we’ve got more work to do.”
You closed 10 of my schools ... and we begged you not to close those schools.
County commissioner Vilma Leake
Commissioner Vilma Leake, also a Democrat, added that she’s concerned about approving big spending items as the district prepares to launch a superintendent search.
“With a superintendent that’s leaving, you’re asking for a budget that someone else will have to deal with,” she said. “That’s out of order.”
Leake also criticized CMS officials for closing schools in 2010 and failing to “build a new West Charlotte High School.”
I get frustrated at this notion of charter schools being a burden.
County commissioner Jim Puckett
Republican Commissioner Jim Puckett voiced frustration that CMS seemed to cast charter schools, which are growing in enrollment and taking a larger share of the county money for public education, as a burden. “They’re as much a public school as any other school,” he said.
CMS is asking the county for $425 million to run schools in 2016-17, a $23 million increase. Clark said most of that is needed to cover rising costs, growing enrollment and the local share of raises for teachers and other CMS employees. The size of that raise will depend on the budget state legislators pass.
Puckett noted that if you eliminate the anticipated charter school enrollment growth and the money that would be passed along to those schools, CMS wants a $15 million hike and expects only 500 more students: “You’re asking for $30,000 per child.”
County commissioners took no votes Tuesday and said another joint meeting is needed before they vote on a budget June 21. County Manager Dena Diorio will present her recommendation to them Thursday, and a public hearing is set for June 2.
School board members left Tuesday’s meeting after two hours for a previously scheduled closed meeting at 5 p.m. Four of the eight commissioners present hadn’t had time to talk, and some discussion continued for the next half hour.
I’m not liking the tone. Anyone watching us would be disappointed.
County commissioner Pat Cotham
After the school board left, Democrat Pat Cotham took issue with the tone of her colleagues’ remarks.
“Anyone watching us would be disappointed,” she said.
Commissioner Dumont Clarke noted that “we can talk about all your failures (but) I think we need to talk about some of your successes, too.” However, neither Clarke nor Cotham voiced support for bonds, and Clarke cautioned that CMS was unlikely to get its full operating request.