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Meck Commish Babysitting CMS


Like a wayward kid who can’t be trusted with his allowance for fear it will all be blown on candy and trinkets, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education needs an adult to ensure it makes the right budget decisions, specifically honoring a commitment to provide pay raises for teachers and school employees.

Enter the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, which this week unanimously adopted a FY2013 budget that totals $1.4 billion and provides $335 million in operating funding for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, an increase of $9.5 million – but with a twist.

In the tumultuous wake of being burned last year by CMS, which sprung news that the district had received an additional $30 million in state funding after warning of massive teacher layoffs (which never materialized) to secure an additional $26 million in local funding, commissioners decided a dose of fiscal babysitting was in order this year to avoid a repeat.

“This board has been told before, you may not believe this, one thing and then they [CMS] did another,” said Commissioner Jim Pendergraph, a Republican. “We need to put our foot down at some point and say this isn’t going to happen again.”

To that end, $18.5 million of the county’s appropriation for CMS is being stuck in a lock box, of sorts, to be pried open only after CMS can prove the money will be used to give teachers a promised 3-percent salary bump, the first pay increase they will have received in four years.

Board of Education members, predictably, are howling at the notion that any restrictions be put on CMS funding, even one meant to ensure that the money district leaders said would be spent on pay raises for teachers is actually spent on, um, pay raises for teachers.

Commissioners, unanimously and from both sides of the political aisle, contend that by restricting a portion of local funding the county board is simply helping CMS achieve its stated top priority.

“We did exactly what CMS asked us to do,” reasoned Pendergraph. “They said their top priority was to give teachers a pay raise and we’re just helping them out. We’re giving them the opportunity to give teachers a pay raise, who desperately need a pay raise, and as soon as they do that we’ll release that money to them.”

Commissioner George Dunlap, a Democrat who aligns politically with Pendergraph and his Republican colleagues about as often as the Transit of Venus rolls around, agreed.

As a former school board member, Dunlap said he has long opposed putting restrictions on county dollars provided to CMS. There was a compelling reason for breaking the mold this year, Dunlap said, and he scolded school board members for crying foul.

“To fault us for responding to your number one priority [funding pay raises], I think is wrong,” Dunlap said. “We did what we were asked to do. Maybe not in the way you [CMS] wanted it done, but there were people who wanted assurances that it would in fact happen.”

If CMS ends up receiving enough money from the state to cover the full 3-percent raises promised school employees, Dunlap said, the $18.5 million in restricted county funding would be released for CMS to use however school leaders want.

That appears a likely scenario, given the way the state budget is unfolding. The House has approved a budget, which still needs Senate approval, that would provide CMS with an additional $31 million, about $19 million more than CMS leaders were projecting when they made their original budget request to the county.

In that light, Commissioner Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, exhorted state leaders to come off the hip for CMS.

“I’m still a little distressed about education,” Roberts said. “We are spending less and less per capita on our children. I think it reflects the reality of our economy, but I would hope this community could do more.

“Perhaps my words tonight may help make a request to our state legislation, because the state is still the primary funder of our school system, and I would hope that they could do more,” said Roberts, who while approving the restricted funds for CMS lamented that budget discussions had reached such a point.

“I would like to see us approve a $9 million increase for our schools without restrictions, because I know that all it does is impede the ability of our school administrators and our school experts to apply the funds in the best way possible,” Roberts said.

Commissioner Karen Bentley, a Republican, challenged Roberts’ sentiments on both the appropriateness of restricting a portion of CMS dollars and also the history of overall funding the county has provided the district.

The $18.5 million contingency restriction, Bentley said, “ensures that the people on the front lines, those are our teachers and teacher assistants, get the pay raise they deserve.”

Concerning overall funding for CMS, Bentley dropped some interesting nuggets to refute Roberts’ poor-mouthing.

“When we look at historical spending for CMS, I want to set the record straight around our trends for county funding since 2005,” Bentley said. “If memory serves, the local portion of funding for CMS has gone up 7 to 8 percent, and since 2009 it’s up almost 3 percent.

“I think it’s a misnomer, when you look at operating dollars specifically,” Bentley corrected, “to say that our support from a funding perspective has diminished relative to CMS.”

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