Inside County Government

Mecklenburg commissioners seek new way to fund CMS

CMS Superintendent Ann Clark
CMS Superintendent Ann Clark

To help ease tension with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, some Mecklenburg County commissioners want to change the way the county funds schools – a move they hope will curtail the traditional back-and-forth between the two groups at budget time.

In an email to County Manager Dena Diorio, commissioner Jim Puckett proposes the county devote a set percentage of its $1.6 billion budget to public schools. That pot of money would include CMS’ operating and capital funds, compelling district leaders to form a budget with cash they know will be available ahead of time.

Already, half of the county’s budget is devoted to education. Last month, Michael Bryant, the county budget director, told commissioners they had given CMS about $1.5 billion over the last three fiscal years.

Puckett’s proposal wouldn’t lessen the county’s priority in funding schools but would give CMS a set figure to work with each year.

“We would not entertain ‘special projects’ or deal with any single issue funding but would leave all funding decisions to the schools,” Puckett wrote.

Diorio said her staff is researching the pros and cons of Puckett’s proposal and will discuss it with commissioners during their budget retreat Jan. 27-29.

The model would put the burden of deciding which programs get funded and which get cut solely on CMS, Puckett said.

It’s not the first time elected officials have considered a new schools funding formula. Puckett, a former school board member, said he introduced the same idea 10 years ago, but it never caught on. With backing from George Dunlap and Vilma Leake – commissioners who are also former school board members – he’s confident the proposal will now gain traction.

Commissioner George Dunlap said the suggestion is less about a fixed amount and more about funding education with certainty. He feels a funding alternative is worth a conversation since commissioners tend to receive the bulk of public scorn when certain programs go underfunded.

“More than half of the tax dollars in Mecklenburg County go to education,” and still “people are not satisfied,” he said. “The goal is to be able to cut down on the tension that exists … at budget time.”

In years past, budget talks between the school board and commissioners often grew tense.

CMS would pitch its proposed budget to the county manager. The manager would then take the budget and issue recommendations to commissioners, who ultimately decided how much money to allot to the schools. When “emotionally charged” programs or initiatives got less money than requested, Puckett said commissioners took the blame.

“It should not be us who decides whether a program lives or dies. It should not be us deciding whether employees should get raises,” he said. “We will give (CMS) half our money, and (they) spend it as they see fit.”

The school district would likely accept the change because it would make budgeting easier, school board Chair Mary McCray said.

But she issued a caveat: If the county returns to the old budget model, she hopes it includes flexibility for student enrollment growth, which dipped to a six-year low last year.

“Even though we’re slow-growing now, there may come a time when the growth is going to pick up,” she said. “If they’re going to go back that way, we still will need the growth component in there.”

But Leake said she’s more concerned with the efficacy of educational programs that run on county dollars, especially ones geared toward literacy.

“We never get any feedback as to how successful the programs have been that we provided funds for,” she said. “If we have programs that we’ve had for the last 10 years and they’re not working, why are we still financing (them)?”

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov