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County Leadership Lacking

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CoreyLike so many others, I was nearly paralyzed with anxiety last spring as the economic landscape was darkened by recession, massive layoffs, and corporate implosion. As a public school teacher, I thought I was in a ‘recession-proof’ industry. I was wrong.

Even the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system (to which I am still faithfully employed) was not immune to the perils of economic “catastrophe.” As was the case with so many other businesses, CMS was forced to make deep cuts to staff, benefits, and programs. Mecklenburg County leadership insisted that the “dire circumstances” of the budget shortfall required drastic measures that would not be easy to accept.

The verdict: a $35-million gutting of the CMS budget, forcing the layoffs of hundreds of employees and bringing many programs to a grinding halt. In the months that followed, my wife (who is also a teacher) and I watched as several friends and colleagues received the bad news that their contracts would not be renewed for the following year. It was a painful experience to say the least, and it mirrored what was happening in “Corporate America” all across the country.

To be fair, Mecklenburg County was not alone in making school cuts. Following our $35-million pace, Wake County was a distant second, cutting a whopping $3-million from its public schools. Guilford County cut even less. Laying sarcasm aside, the comparisons aren’t even close.

Yet, county management told us (with their final budget) that there were no alternatives. The situation was that bad. We were broke, and as a county, we were teetering on the precipice of certain economic doom.

This is when I began to pay closer attention to the decisions being made by the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, and more specifically, County Manager Harry Jones.

Since those CMS budget cuts of ‘09, county leaders have often discussed our current budget woes, yet their actions have done little to prove their conviction to fixing them. While some measures have been taken, they amount to little more than band-aids on bleeding wounds that require stitches. Despite the deep economic abyss in which we are still treading, new spending initiatives have been launched. Adding insult to our plight, the bad-taste still lingers in the mouths of the general public regarding the unknown fate of well over $100,000 in DSS funds.

However, in my opinion the most ill-advised budget item that the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) has approved since the cuts of ’09 is the awarding of a $38,400 bonus to County Manager Harry Jones. In a 9-0 unanimous vote, the BOCC recognized Jones with a bonus for what several commissioners deemed as a “job well done during tough economic times.”

In recent weeks, I have asked some county commissioners to justify their decision. At a recent gathering of the Northeast Coalition, Commissioner Dan Murrey fielded my question from the audience, and responded by saying that “the bonus was awarded on the basis of job performance,” and he alluded to the fact that the decision was made (in part) to maintain a competitive salary for the county manager. Commissioner Murrey went on to say that “if the bonus was not awarded to Jones, in essence, Jones would have taken a pay cut from the previous year.”

My response: “A pay cut looks pretty good to someone who just lost their job.”

The bonus amounts to ‘blood money,’ made available to the county manager on the same pages of the budget that put hundreds of our friends and neighbors out of work. I spent a very long afternoon last spring with a good friend and colleague of mine who had just learned of their fate due to CMS layoffs. I’ll never get the image of their despair that afternoon out of my mind. I think of that day often, especially now.

I realize that $38,400 is a mere drop in the bucket when compared to $35 million in CMS cuts by Mecklenburg County. However, $38,400 could have kept a well-qualified teacher in a classroom. Even one more teacher could have made a difference in the lives of CMS students. And now, less than a year later (and $38,400 more in the hole), Harry Jones told WBT’s Stacey Simms during a recent interview that the county needs to brace itself for the harsh reality that “we’re going to have to do less, with less.” In light of the bonus, Jones’ remarks seem even more misplaced.

It all comes down to leadership. A leader doesn’t talk about “tough times” and “dire circumstances” and “doing less, with less,” while depositing a bonus check equivalent to the salary of someone who he indirectly helped displace. That type of mentality has no place in budgets funded by hardworking taxpayers who are already feeling overwhelmed. We’ve seen enough of that game on Wall Street; we don’t need it here.

Last year, in the midst of massive layoffs, pay and hiring freezes, and long lines for unemployment benefits, the county manager had a unique opportunity to display responsible leadership during a very dark economic period for Mecklenburg County. Yet, unlike his equivalent at the helm of CMS, Jones took his bonus. School leadership declined theirs.

In light of another steep budget cut in 2010, I’m calling on County Manager Harry Jones to forfeit his $38,400 bonus from 2009. I’m challenging him to turn it back over to the county, or better yet, to make a charitable contribution in that amount to CMS on behalf of ‘The People of Mecklenburg County.’ Doing so would not only keep a teacher in a classroom this time around, it would go a long way toward rebuilding the public trust in his leadership.

Many of my contemporaries will tell me that such rhetoric is a bit aggressive, arrogant, or ill-advised. Some may look at my comments and pass them off as nothing more than ‘political theatre’ in light of my campaign for County Commission. Others may see me as misguided and uninformed.

Regardless of what some may say, I’m speaking from the heart and standing on my convictions on this one, election or no election.

As a teacher, I know all-too-well the far reaching implications of cutting $35 million from the CMS budget. I’m married to a teacher and I’m a good “Daddy” to our two-year-old son. I work hard, find ways to make ends meet, and I realize just how tough things are right now for the average family. Like many of you, my family has had to make difficult decisions and we’ve had to make necessary cuts in our discretionary spending. Is it too much to ask county leadership to do the same?

Is it too much to ask that the County Commission suspend all bonuses while millions of dollars are gutted from our public school system, and while hundreds of teachers are displaced, yet again?

The burden of leadership is often quite heavy. Carrying around an extra $38,400 does very little to lighten that load, and sometimes pockets become so stuffed that you can’t see or hear the very people who depend on your responsible leadership the most.

Is it too much to demand that our leaders actually lead once again?

That’s all I’m asking, especially of Jones.

It’s about time somebody did.

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Corey Thompson, Special to PunditHouse.com – Used by Permission

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