Dozens of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parents and teachers told county commissioners Wednesday that the proposed funding for schools falls short of what is needed to fill staffing shortages and increase teacher pay.
They crowded the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioner chambers to speak in opposition to the proposed budget, which includes $557.9 million for CMS operating expenses. That’s about $20 million less than CMS requested.
But County Manager Dena Diorio and some Mecklenburg County commissioners say they believe they’re doing all they can to fund education — and that the county’s education allocation goes beyond CMS funding.
Commissioners Laura Meier and Susan Rodriguez-McDowell disagree.
The majority of the 41 people signed up to speak at Wednesday night’s budget public hearing pleaded with the board to give more money to CMS.
CMS teachers Rae LeGrone, Nina P. McNair-Mullen and Erin DeMund attended the meeting together dressed in red to show support for public education. Their main concern is staff shortages, they said.
“We do care,” said McNair-Mullen, a teachdr at Reid Park Academy. “We’re showing up.”
DeMund, an elementary school teacher at Oaklawn Language Academy, said she is concerned with the shortage of teacher assistants that are especially needed for younger students.
“Right now our school district is on fire, it’s in a crisis,” Rodriguez-McDowell said. “When your neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t bring a measuring cup of water.”
The school board in April approved its proposed budget of $578.4 million, an increase of about $40.4 million over the current year.
CMS parent Justin Perry said his son was “heartbroken” to discover his teacher assistant isn’t returning to CMS next year. Instead, Perry said, he’s leaving to make more money as a social worker.
Julie Kelly, a parent of three CMS students, said her daughter has been taught by the physical education teacher and different substitutes because the school cannot keep teachers on staff.
“It’s not a problem now,” Kelly said. “It’s an emergency.”
Stephanie Donnis, a teacher assistant, spoke in support of more CMS funding because she said she wants to make more than $15 per hour and work fewer hours.
“Don’t deny us a living wage,” Donnis said. “We don’t need million-dollar programs, we need (teacher assistants).”
Some commissioners seek more CMS funding
Before Wednesday’s public hearing, when county commissioners weren’t allowed to respond to residents’ comments, they met Tuesday to discuss the budget.
Then, Rodriguez-McDowell said she would like to see an additional $12 million added to the CMS allocation in the county’s budget. That would include $6 million for teacher assistants and a 10% teacher supplement increase.
“I would support (CMS’s) entire ask, but I’m trying to find a compromise,” Rodriguez-McDowell said.
Meier urged Diorio to work out the budget with the CMS superintendent, a suggestion that generated a heated discussion. Diorio said she already had met with the superintendent. Now, she said, it’s time for the school board to make decisions with the allocation they will receive.
“They have to prioritize what they’re given,” Diorio said.
“I’m not sure that I buy that,” Meier said. “Teachers are gonna leave, they’re gonna go to other counties.”
Board of Education member Jennifer De La Jara said she would like to see more money to fund preventative maintenance, teacher assistant pay raises and teacher supplement increases.
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake said she believes the issues the school system is facing falls more on leadership than funding.
What can the county funding do?
Mecklenburg County is giving CMS 49.4% of its funding request, when on average the county funds 97% of the board’s request each year. The county has not filled CMS’s full request since 2012, when it gave the school board 5% more than it requested, according to Mecklenburg County budget director Adrian Cox.
“It funds the critical needs of the district, salary increases and some of the new strategies for educational attainment,” Cox said about the proposed 2023 budget.
But CMS said it needs its full request to meet the needs of its academically struggling students, particularly improving Black and Hispanic students’ third-grade reading scores and high school math scores.
The nearly $20 million increase Mecklenburg County is proposing can fund the following next year in CMS:
2.7% pay increases to match already-approved state pay increases of 2.7% for county-funded teachers, which makes up less than a quarter of CMS’ teachers, certified staff and assistant principals;
2.5% pay increases to match already approved state pay increases for principals and non-certified staff;
5% teacher supplement increase;
30 new maintenance positions, including 19 custodians for two new schools opening in the district, Palisades High School and Mint Hill Elementary School;
$2.7 million for 32 English learner teachers;
$4.5 million for health insurance and retirement increases;
$1.1 million for the Personalized Academic Command of English (PACE) Global Academy;
$400,000 for expenses associated with the New Early College High School at Central Piedmont Community College.
CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew previously told The Charlotte Observer that $4.9 million is needed for preventative maintenance on CMS facilities and equipment, and roughly $21 million of the district’s increased request is to cover the costs of state mandates.
Those mandates include:
Estimated state-driven salary increases for teachers and retirement and health benefit increases, requiring $10.8 million in new funding;
CMS also is required to pay for any student who attends a charter school and lives in Mecklenburg County. Charter school enrollment is expected to increase with 1,563 new students, and cost $5.5 million; and
While the county accounted for staffing for the pair of new schools, the district also needs money for operating costs.
Of the county’s $2.1 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, $900 million, or 42%, is going toward education and literacy. This includes the more than $500 million for CMS plus funding for Central Piedmont Community College, free pre-K education in Mecklenburg County, educational attainment programs, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, the Arts and Science Council and more.
The Mecklenburg County commissioners will discuss the budget and hold straw voting on June 15 and June 16. The 2023 county budget is expected to be adopted on June 22.
Education reporter Anna Maria Della Costa contributed to this report.