Mecklenburg commissioners: County can’t pick up full cost of school raises

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent’s request for $27 million in county money to give district employees 3 percent raises is raising doubts among county commissioners, who say that’s asking county taxpayers to assume a state responsibility

Earlier this week, a General Assembly task force examining state teacher pay said that finding a sustainable and effective solution would require more study. The legislative session reconvenes next month and some county commissioners say that raises are the state’s responsibility, as the majority of CMS teachers are state employees.

However, the state is projected to have nearly $2.4 billion less in tax revenue over the next five fiscal years following the personal and corporate income tax cuts that Gov. Pat McCrory and legislators approved, effective this tax year.

CMS could ask for a $46.2 million increase from the county if the proposed budget that Superintendent Heath Morrison presented April 8 is approved. The local proposal would increase county funding for CMS about 13 percent to $402.7 million.

Though CMS has yet to approve a 2014-15 budget request, Commissioner Bill James, a Republican, said it’s unrealistic to expect that the county could make up for reductions in federal and state money.

“Sadly, I see CMS using the county as a deep pocket to fill whatever problem they have,” he said. “If we were to hand them the money they wanted, there wouldn’t be a dime left for anything else.”

Commissioners’ Chairman Trevor Fuller, a Democrat, said at this early stage the state appears to be pushing its legal obligation to fund teacher compensation onto county coffers.

“At a time when there’s tax relief going to billionaires by virtue of the changed tax code, one would think there could be some funding to pay for teachers,” he said.

Many school board members expressed initial support for the superintendent’s proposal, but a vote isn’t scheduled until May 13. County commissioners won’t hear recommendations on the 2014-15 budget until late May.

The state ranks 46th in the country on teacher pay, about $10,000 less than the national average, Morrison said.

CMS has more than 18,000 employees, one of the largest employers in the Charlotte region. Most are state employees, and for years the state legislature set raises, with CMS using county money to provide the same raise for the rest of the work force.

But when the recession hit, the state froze pay for teachers and other state employees. The only exception was a 1.2 percent state raise in 2012-13; Mecklenburg commissioners provided an additional $18.5 million to bring that to 3 percent for CMS employees.

Now, with state officials saying an across-the-board raise looks unlikely for 2014-15, CMS is seeking $27 million in county money for another 3 percent bump. If the state was paying its share of a 3 percent raise, the county share would be about $7 million.

“It’s a complicated issue,” commissioner Dumont Clarke, a Democrat, said. “What good is it for the state to cut taxes, and cut revenue to pay teachers, if it’s just going to shift the burden to people on the local level?”

Commissioner Pat Cotham – whose daughter, Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, was part of the state’s teacher pay task force – has asked teacher groups and CMS employees to advocate for pay raises at the state level first.

“I’m sure the Republican leadership wants the county to do the state’s job. Because that is their job, the salaries of teachers,” she said.

While public education is a priority to many commissioners, Cotham, a Democrat, said the county has additional funding obligations outside public education. “We’ll do the best we can for our schools, but it may not be what they’re asking for.”

Staff writer Ann Doss Helms contributed.