Politics & Government

CMS, county near construction compromise after funding battle

Superintendent Ann Clark and County Manager Dena Diorio will be working on a recommendation to address growth and diversity in schools.
Superintendent Ann Clark and County Manager Dena Diorio will be working on a recommendation to address growth and diversity in schools. tcfleming@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County commissioners have largely ruled out a November bond referendum and going beyond a recommended $11.3 million increase for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

But this week they indicated that they’re willing to consider moving ahead with some construction projects that CMS wants.

The plans outlined Tuesday would let CMS get a head start on some of its 29 proposed projects, even without a 2016 bond vote. Commissioners would find additional money to start some of the most urgent projects, doing such things as buying land and starting design work before voters approve a new round of bonds.

CMS had asked the county for $425 million to run schools in 2016-17, a $23 million increase. Superintendent Ann Clark had 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.

The school district had also wanted an $805 million bond package on the ballot in November, but commissioners favor holding off.

The school board hopes to still move forward with some of the 29 projects outlined in the bond proposal.

The plans outlined Tuesday would let CMS get a head start on those projects, even without a 2016 bond vote. Commissioners would find additional money to start some of the most urgent projects, doing such things as buying land and starting design work before voters approve a new round of bonds.

Adding the projects would not delay projects that have been approved as part of earlier bonds packages, said CMS Chief Operating Officer Carol Stamper.

The school construction plans come at a time when the district is undergoing a review of student assignment. As part of the guiding principles of student assignment, the school board wants to increase the economic diversity of individual schools and give all students more options.

At the meeting, Clark presented five packages to show the commissioners possible outlines for adding more classrooms.

The plans would allow the district to place more students in magnet schools, a key part of the student assignment plan.

The most expensive package would cost $461.4 million, providing money to buy new land for schools and add 4,860 new magnet spots. The cheapest would cost $185 million and would rely on refurbishing schools to add 3,801 magnet spots.

Commissioners and school board members didn’t agree on a specific option, but they asked County Manager Dena Diorio and Clark to come up with recommendations.

Once a plan is approved, the county could borrow money that had been approved in a previous bond referendum but remains available because of projects coming in under budget. To fully fund the plan, the county would need additional money through a possible bond referendum in 2017.

But some questioned proceeding with construction without a guarantee there will be a bond referendum to complete the package.

“I think it is a very dangerous thing to commit to what the people will do in 18 months,” said commissioner Jim Puckett.

Budget formulas

At the joint meeting, the school board and commissioners also considered money needed for school operations.

Puckett said that the debate over funding comes up every year and results in the school board asking for unrealistic amounts of money. To ease the annual tensions and allow for a budget more reflective of the current economy, he has proposed using a formula to provide school funding each year.

School board members and some commissioners expressed unease at relying on such a formula.

“I wasn’t elected to decide formulas for funding. I was elected to use my brain,” Ccommissioner Dumont Clarke said.

School board Chair Mary McCray said that she was against the formula plan because it would lock the school board into an equation that does not reflect the year-to-year changes that school system goes through.

Tyler Fleming: 704-358-5355, @tyler_fleming96

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