CMS board OKs request for raises as hundreds cheer

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s unanimous vote for a $1.3 billion budget plan Tuesday signals the next step in a push for state legislators and county commissioners to invest in education as the economy recovers.

An overflow crowd of hundreds applauded, cheered and whistled during a session that felt more like a pep rally than a school board meeting. Board members and Superintendent Heath Morrison urged the audience to keep making the case for raises and other spending increases.

“This is not going away,” Morrison said. “We have started something.”

The board voted 8-0 to request an additional $46.2 million from county taxpayers, which includes almost $27 million to provide a 3 percent across-the-board raise for the 18,500 people working for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. It also includes $3.7 million to hire 40 new counselors, school psychologists and social workers, helping rebuild a support staff that was slashed during the recession.

Vice Chairman Tim Morgan noted that another huge crowd turned out last week to urge county commissioners to support teachers. They drew criticism from some commissioners because it was not a scheduled budget meeting.

“We’ve got to keep up the pressure,” Morgan said. “Our voices are being heard.”

CMS officials and county commissioners will meet next week to talk about the request for almost $403 million, which is up 13 percent from this year.

Some commissioners are skeptical. Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, who was following the meeting on social media, emailed the Observer to say Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders are using a popular topic to get more money from the county.

“They know that they can get parents, teachers, and kids to write letters to the (Board of County Commissioners) asking for funding for teacher raises, but those folks aren’t going to be nearly so inclined to write letters about $27M worth of iPads or other projects,” he wrote. “This is a carefully orchestrated move to get more funding by capitalizing on the public’s desire to see teachers’ salaries increased.”

Meanwhile, board members, Morrison, teachers and families say they’ll also push state legislators to provide better pay for teachers and better conditions for students to learn. The General Assembly convenes Wednesday for a session that’s expected to have a heavy focus on education.

Local events began hours before the board meeting. On Tuesday morning, parents and students at Torrence Creek Elementary in Huntersville and Davidson Elementary held “invest in education” rallies as their teachers arrived.

As the 6 p.m. meeting approached, lines spilled to the streets as people waited for security screenings to enter the Government Center.

Several public speakers at Tuesday’s meeting voiced a sense that not just pay but respect for teachers is eroding in North Carolina.

“Teachers save lives every day,” said April Whitlock, a Dilworth Elementary parent. “They are on the front lines of our future but in the back line of our priorities.”

Morrison’s budget projects that state money for CMS will be just over $736 million, up 3 percent over this year. That’s a best guess based on state budget forecasts and projections that CMS will see a small enrollment increase next year.

Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP legislative leaders have announced plans to approve raises for some or all teachers. If the county also approves the $27 million, that would let CMS grant bigger raises.

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