Leaders: sales tax referendum ‘doomed’ before Heath Morrison’s resignation

The sales tax referendum that would have sent more money to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was “doomed” well before Superintendent Heath Morrison resigned abruptly on the eve of Election Day, school board Chairwoman Mary McCray said Wednesday.

The ballot measure failed 61 percent to 39 percent at the polls Tuesday night. Had it passed, the quarter-cent sales tax increase would have sent about $28 million to CMS for employee salary raises. Money would also go to Central Piedmont Community College, the Arts & Science Council, and Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

CMS and Mecklenburg County leaders made a public appearance Wednesday morning to say they didn’t think the results meant the community had lost confidence in public schools. They vowed to find other ways to raise teacher pay.

“This election in no way indicates a lack of support for CMS,” Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark said. Clark is expected to assume the superintendent’s duties Thursday, when Morrison’s resignation should become official.

Departure one variable

Morrison announced Monday that he would step down from his role after only two years on the job. He said he was leaving to take care of his ailing mother. By Tuesday, the Observer had learned that Morrison left after the CMS legal department led an investigation into cost overruns in construction projects and allegations that Morrison bullied staff members.

School board members have said they are unable to answer questions about Morrison’s departure. The board is scheduled to meet Thursday to vote on a separation agreement.

McCray and Clark said they don’t believe Morrison’s departure tipped the vote.

“I’m unwilling to attribute the defeat to any one variable,” Clark said.

McCray said the pro-sales tax increase camp did an admirable job with limited time and resources.

Margin was 2-1 against

Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller, one of the referendum’s chief advocates, said in an interview that he also doesn’t believe the news about Morrison helped sink Tuesday’s referendum.

“If you look at the early and absentee voting, it was 61 percent against,” Fuller said. “I knew after those votes came in that the referendum was in for a long night.”

Fuller said the board needs to continue to look for ways to make teacher salaries more competitive, so CMS teachers are not poached by other districts and states willing to pay more. They also need to look for more funding for the ASC and the public library.

“We can’t stop trying to find a solution,” he said. “We must properly fund our teachers. Clearly the people have spoken, and we must respect the judgment of the people of whether the sales tax was the proper avenue to generate more money for teachers, the arts and for the library. We’ve got some tough choices ahead.”

Those choices, he said, could include cutting services or raising property taxes to raise the $35 million that would have been generated by the quarter-cent sales tax. “I still believe the sales tax was the least unpalatable choice,” he said. “But the people spoke, and we need to move on. But unless we get some contribution from our partners at the state, our choices are limited.”

ASC seeks solutions

Robert Bush, president of the Arts & Science Council, said Wednesday that he was disappointed the measure didn’t pass, and people in the arts sector will continue to look for ways to pay for key needs.

“It is important that our students experience arts and cultural programming to become creative and critical thinkers for the 21st century workforce,” Bush said in a statement. “It is important that Mecklenburg residents have access to affordable and relevant cultural programming where they live like libraries and parks.”

County commissioner Dumont Clarke said Tuesday’s vote is “not necessarily fatal” to the chances of a sales tax increase. He said the board could try another referendum at another time.

Commissioner Pat Cotham, the top at-large vote-getter in Tuesday’s election, said money for teachers and the other groups can be found by correcting inefficiencies of county government.

She said the board needs to have a conversation about who should look for the inefficiencies, even if it means hiring an outside group to audit the way the county operates.

“That’s what big companies do all the time,” she said. “I am certain we could find millions and millions to use for teachers and the arts and the library if we just got more efficient.”

Fuller said he is willing to talk about auditing the county’s operations.

“But I would be shocked if we were wasting $35 million,” he said. “Sure there are inefficiencies of any organization our size. Maybe that’s part of the answer, but you can only do that once. It’s not sustainable like a sales tax.” MARK WASHBURN CONTRIBUTED

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