Mecklenburg County plan to withhold school funds represents a 180 for two former Board of Education members

Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, 2004

One of the saddest parts of the year-long debate over Mecklenburg County’s plan to withhold funding from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools has been the dramatic change in philosophy it represents for two former school board members who now serve on the Board of County Commissioners.

Board Chair George Dunlap served on the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education representing District 3 from 1995 to 2008, and Commissioner Vilma Leake was the Board of Education District 2 representative from 1997 to 2008.

Over the past year, both have been enthusiastic supporters of plans to hold back education funding in a supposed attempt to address the achievement gap. Leake was first to suggest the approach at the 2020 Budget Straw Vote session. 

But archived Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education meeting minutes show that, while in their former roles, both Dunlap and Leake understood the vital importance of local funding for improving student outcomes and were frustrated when Mecklenburg County failed to provide adequate resources at the time.

At a September 2004 meeting, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education heard a recommendation from Superintendent James Pughsley to approve the 2004-05 CMS budget.

In his comments, Pughsley expressed concern that local funding had not kept pace with the school district’s growth, explaining that the lack of county funding would mean cuts that would “have an impact on teaching and learning.”

In the discussion that followed Superintendent Pughsley’s presentation, Board member George Dunlap noted that insufficient county funds would harm efforts to improve student achievement and said voters should hold commissioners accountable for their lack of support for the school district:

Mr. Dunlap reported that the budget that has been presented is what Dr. Pughsley believes best suits the needs of the children in the community and he is the one who will be held accountable. To move dollars here or there will not help him achieve his goals. It should be unquestionable what you do with a budget that is millions and millions of dollars less than what you need to achieve the things you had hoped to achieve. Mr. Dunlap reported that Dr. Pughsley had proposed initiatives to improve students who are low performing and, as a result of the budget cuts, some of those would not be realized. He stated it is very important for the public to be aware of this during the election year.

George Dunlap’s take on the budget in 2004 differs sharply with his current approach as Chair of the Board of County Commissioners.

At a May 25, 2021 meeting between Dunlap, County Manager Dena Diorio, Board of Education Chair Elyse Dashew and Superintendent Earnest Winston, Dunlap seemed shocked the district would even imagine that its request from the county might be fully funded:

Dunlap:  So, one of the things that was said was that we underfunded CMS to the tune of ninety something million.  And so, what that meant was that we underfunded the fifty-six, plus the amount that you asked for that you didn’t get.  Which suggests that you are under the impression that whatever you ask for you should get.  Now that was released by CMS.  Am I correct in that?

Dashew:  Ninety-six million. I don’t recall that number.

Winston:  I think it was eighty, it was eighty-one million.  And I think, Chairman Dunlap, what we did, and we went through a very methodical process with our budget that included community input and everything that we requested as part of that budget ask was everything that we thought we needed to appropriately and effectively educate our students.  So we didn’t…another way of saying that is that there wasn’t any fluff in that budget.  And we requested what we needed to educate kids.

Diorio:  But you do it every year.  And we never fully fund your request.  This is no different than any other year. 

Back to the 2004 Board of Education budget discussion. 

In her comments at the meeting, Vilma Leake went even further than Dunlap, blasting commissioners for playing politics and suggesting that, if the county was not willing to provide the funding needed to educate at-risk students, perhaps a lawsuit was necessary:

Ms. Leake asked how do you hold Dr. Pughsley and this Board accountable when the County has not provided funds in three years? She asked the County Commissioners to provide the funds to educate our children and not be political in the process because the children are the ones who lose in this process. Ms. Leake expressed a concern for at-risk students not receiving the funds they need to be educated. Ms. Leake encouraged the public to ask the County Commissioners to provide the funds necessary to educate the children. She suggested perhaps CMS or the public could bring a lawsuit against the County to make them provide the funds necessary to educate the children like they did in Guilford County.

Leake’s 2004 comments contrast distinctly with her 2020 move to punish Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools for not adequately educating children.  

At last year’s Budget Straw Vote session, Leake was the one to first raise the idea of placing funds in restricted contingency due to low student achievement in order to show the public that she was willing to be tough on the school board:

Dunlap:  All right, Commissioner Leake?

Leake:  Yes, let me look at, I want to find out how I can take some money from the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board as it relates to student assignment and educating our children, cause that’s not what they’re doing.  The scores are still the same, or less, and they’re not putting teachers appropriately.  How and where can I take funds to show the public that we have to say to the school board “You must use this money to educate our children”?

Leake proposed withholding 30% of CMS’s instructional budget, which County Manager Diorio informed her would come to $84 million.  Leake then reduced her proposed amount to be withheld from CMS to $30 million.

The motion was tabled when commissioners couldn’t come up with a process that would allow for the release of the money. 

One year later it’s been resurrected and nearly doubled to $56 million that will be withheld from the district until CMS officials produce a plan for closing the achievement gap that satisfies commissioners. The Board will meet on Tuesday, June 1 to vote on the fiscal year 2022 budget.

What we could really use right now is the chance to have 2004 George Dunlap and Vilma Leake come and present to the 2021 Board of County Commissioners about the need for the county to provide adequate resources for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and to trust our Board of Education and district leadership to thoughtfully engage in the hard work of addressing the achievement gap.

Perhaps they could convince commissioners that when much-needed resources are held over the head of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, the children are the ones who lose.

**Credit to Laurel Brooks for unearthing the 2004 CMS minutes, which you can view in their entirety below**


CMS sets the record straight on county plan to withhold funding: “Funding reductions and holdbacks of this magnitude impact the classroom. Period.”

On Tuesday, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools released the following FAQ to clarify some important issues around Mecklenburg County’s plan to withhold $56 million from the district’s budget for the upcoming school year:

Frequently Asked QuestionsCharlotte-Mecklenburg Schools BudgetMay 2021

Q:        Why doesn’t CMS share its plan to improve academic outcomes? 

A:        CMS has shared our 2024 strategic plan with the Board of County Commissioners as recently as May 4, 2021. We began implementing this plan in 2018. Our plan addresses outcomes for all students. The Board of Education and CMS staff continue to fine-tune and revise our strategic plan in light of the impact of the pandemic. We look forward to sharing the results of this governance work at the appropriate time. 

Q:        Weren’t many of these problems pervasive pre-pandemic? 

A:        Disparities in educational outcomes for black and brown students have existed in Mecklenburg County and across the nation for decades, just as have disparities in housing, economic opportunity/wages and many other areas. There are many underlying reasons for these gaps existing and widening, including factors beyond the control of public schools. Erosions over the past two-plus decades in the successful reforms enacted after the historic Swann decision 50 years ago are among the causes. Further inequities in housing, food insecurity, wage gaps and other factors that impact students in the 128 hours per week when they are not in the care of our schools also must be addressed.  The pandemic has magnified all of these factors. The school system cannot be looked upon in a vacuum when other community ills contribute to the difficulties of addressing educational outcomes. 

Q:        What is the projected enrollment number for next school year and how does this differ from recent enrollment numbers?  How does this affect CMS’s per-pupil budget request to the County?

A:        Projected student enrollment for CMS for FY2022 is 143,856 which is higher than the actual enrollment for FY2021 at 140,070.  It is important to note that while the FY2021 budget was based on a higher projected enrollment than actually materialized, the state held districts harmless at projected funding levels. CMS followed the state’s lead by retaining staff and maintaining planned allocations to schools to avoid disruption to classes. The district also provided additional support and avoided terminating employees in the midst of the pandemic.  To date, CMS has continued to employ staff and prevent layoffs, and furloughs. The budget request for additional funding for next year is a prime example of how per pupil funding may increase year-over-year.  For example, salary and benefit increases for existing staff will increase the per pupil amount even without any change in enrollment. The request for operating costs for new schools and preventive maintenance for existing facilities is needed regardless of changes in enrollment.  The request for additional social and emotional support staffing represents an ongoing need to reduce the ratios of staffing to students to meet the needs of students – now more than ever – but was needed long before the pandemic and is also not impacted by the level of enrollment shifts this past year.  Bottom line, the budget is not built on a per pupil basis. Instead, the request is driven by and based on additional funding needs.

Q:        County officials say their recommended budget contingency will not impact the classroom. CMS says it will – can you explain? 

A:        Funding reductions and holdbacks of this magnitude impact the classroom. Period. County funding is used to supplement what we receive in state and other funding sources. Many of the expenses paid with county funds cannot be paid with state funding – even if we had the funds available, which we do not.  The recommended allocation completely eliminates the funding in several categories and decimates a few others so operating with this “holdback” of funding as outlined will be extremely problematic.  Local funding pays a portion of salaries for principals. For many assistant principals, entire salaries are locally funded. Another example: the county proposal reduces the budget for Finance and Human Resources by about half of the total planned local funding. Hiring and paying teachers, assistant teachers and other school-based staff are critical functions of these areas. Doing this work with significantly fewer staff will impact our classrooms.   

Q:        CMS says the funding gap is $81 million. The BOCC says they are funding at a higher rate than last year. What’s the reality? 

A:        With a $24.5 million portion of our total local funding request unfunded and the $56 million held in “restricted contingency,” we must prepare a budget as if our request is underfunded by about $81 million. The recommended county budget allocation to CMS for next year is $526.9 million. This is actually only $2 million more than the prior year. However, the prior year allocation designated $4.1 million as one-time funding (for the system modernization project and preventive maintenance) so the base ongoing amount decreased to $520.8 million. Thus the increase referenced by the county manager as $6.1 million is from that lower base amount.  The county manager outlined the recommended allocation for the $6.1 million increase, but that leaves us with $24.5 million in identified needs that remain unfunded – some of which will likely be required to provide locally funded teachers and other staff the same salary and benefit increases mandated by the state and to cover the charter school pass-through cost. As a result, we must cut or downsize programs, put off facility maintenance efforts and delay hiring or reduce staff.  We cannot budget for the school year with a deficit, and it is not fiscally sound to consider $56 million in a “restricted contingency” funding as part of our planned spend for the year until it is released from restriction.  

Q:        Is the BOCC claim that some NC counties don’t receive county funding true? 

A:        All counties receive some level of funding support from their respective county.   

Q:        Why does CMS need $551 million of county funding when the district is receiving $500 million in federal COVID relief money? 

A:        Federal funding must be used in addition to, not in place of, annual state and local funding. The COVID-related federal funding has specific allowable uses that must be directly linked to the prevention of, reduction of or in response to COVID-19.  Almost all components of our budget request for county funding are ongoing recurring expenses that existed prior to and will remain after the pandemic subsides.  The request does not include expenses incurred due to impacts of the pandemic, as those will be addressed with the COVID relief funding

Q:        Can federal dollars identified in the CMS budget request be used to pay for maintenance expenses that CMS has sought from the county?

A:        No. Federal funding must be used in addition to, not in place of annual state and local funding. The COVID-related federal funding has specific allowable uses that must be directly linked to the prevention of, reduction of, or in response to COVID-19. During the budget planning process, the list of facility needs was reviewed and items that are related to improving indoor air quality or reducing the spread of COVID-19 were identified to be included within the COVID-related federal funding. Items under the county request are preventive maintenance items that would not be allowable on the COVID related federal funding.

Q:        Is CMS requesting double-billing of funds for charter school students? 

A:        No, the district is not “double billing” for charter students.   CMS budgets for staffing, services and materials to support the district’s enrollment and operations of district schools. Then, based on the estimated local per pupil funding anticipated for the next year (using the combined district and charter enrollment to compute the per pupil amount), a budget is calculated for the charter school pass-through payments which is incorporated into the overall district budget. 

While we do consider the charter enrollment in our budget development process, we do not include the projected charter enrollment as we determine the necessary staffing and support for our district schools; therefore, we are not “double billing” for the charter enrollment in the budget request.  Furthermore, this budgeting exercise is recalculated each budget cycle to ensure we adjust for any shifts in enrollment between our schools and charters from year to year.   

Q:        If the state adopts a budget increasing salaries for state-funded employees, will county-funded employees receive the same increase under the current county budget recommendation? 

A:        It is the district’s practice to provide the same salary increase for all employees as mandated by the state for state paid employees. This was a part of our budget request from the county. The proposed county funding is not sufficient to cover the anticipated salary and benefit increases so reductions in other areas will be necessary to ensure all of our staff receive any salary increases mandated by the state that they so deserve. 

Q:        Does the county proposal reduce the CMS budget allocation from the county?

A:        The holdback of funding and uncertainty of when it will be released creates a situation for the district to plan a budget that is without that funding.  That is the most fiscally responsible action to take in this circumstance.

Q:        What about the “unbudgeted” $320 million in federal revenue in CMS’s proposed budget for FY2022? Why has no spending plan been identified for these funds?

A:        During the months of budget development work, we were not aware of the American Rescue Plan funding amount and only added an estimate just prior to presenting the budget – even before the state had given us an indication of our allocation. We did this in the spirit of transparency to ensure the community was aware that we anticipated having access to these COVID relief funds over the next few school years. We also discussed at length our intent to prepare a budget using a wide range of stakeholder input and thoughtful review of needs. Additional but yet-to-be-identified factors likely must be addressed in the continued response to COVID-19, and for that reason federal authorities allow districts until 2024 to use the most recent COVID-related funding. The board of education and the community will be informed once this budget plan is finalized and funding is made available for us to use for COVID-related expenses.  

Q:        Is CMS’s policy IKE still in effect?

A:        Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education Policy IKE governs student Promotion, Retention, and Acceleration and is in effect.  All components of policy IKE are still in effect. House Bill 82, which is the basis for the Camp CMS summer learning and enrichment program, prohibits the retention of kindergarten students. Students in other grades who are retained at the conclusion of the 2020-2021 and successfully complete Camp CMS must have their retention reviewed to determine if it is still warranted.  

Q:        Is CMS providing individual plans to support all students who qualify for MTSS interventions? 

A:        The individual plan requirements previously in place were based on a state statute from 2008. That statute has been updated numerous times since then and there is no current requirement that each student be provided such a plan. 

Q:        Mecklenburg County officials claim that CMS operates 166 schools and CMS says it operates 176 schools. What is the accurate number? 

A:        CMS operates 176 schools. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction website supports this fact. 

Mecklenburg County funding proposal threatens students and teachers

County Manager Dena Diorio proposes placing $56 million of CMS’s budget in restricted contingency

This week the growing beef between Mecklenburg County and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools took an unexpectedly ugly turn when County Commission Chairman George Dunlap threatened to withdraw county funding for the school district entirely.

The threat came in response to a Board of Education statement that the BOE would “pursue the avenues available to us” if commissioners approve County Manager Dena Diorio’s proposal to withhold $56 million in the FY 2022 budget until CMS provides an acceptable plan for closing the achievement gap.

County funding for CMS constitutes roughly one third of the district’s operating budget and last year came in at $530 million.

It seems unlikely that the county would take such a catastrophic step, and it’s worth noting that–despite Dunlap’s claim–there are actually no North Carolina school districts that operate without local funding.  However, so far only one commissioner has publicly opposed Diorio’s proposal to hold $56 million of CMS’s funds in restricted contingency. 

Whether it’s $56 million or $530 million, we need to have a real conversation about who is most threatened by talk of withholding funds from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.  

News accounts and rhetoric by commissioners publicly supporting this approach have primarily framed this conflict as county leadership demanding more accountability from our Board of Education and school district leaders. 

But board members and executive administration don’t work in the schools that rely on that funding to do the day to day work of educating and supporting our children.  It’s our school building-level educators and students that stand to lose the most if the already insufficient resources we have to work with are reduced even further.

Commissioners who support the idea of withholding CMS funds will probably tell you it’s not punitive.  Just this week Commissioner Vilma Leake said “It’s not about taking money from the school district.  It’s about making sure that we hold you accountable for why we elected you to educate our children.” 

Let’s not forget that Commissioner Leake was actually the first one to raise the idea of placing school district funds in restricted contingency almost exactly a year ago.  At the 2020 straw vote session, Leake said CMS was failing to educate children and asked how she could take funds from the school board.

Leake proposed withholding 30% of CMS’s instructional budget, which County Manager Diorio informed her would come to $84m.  Leake then reduced her proposed amount to be withheld from CMS to $30m.

The motion was tabled when commissioners couldn’t come up with metrics that would allow for the release of the money.  One year later it’s been resurrected and nearly doubled to $56 million.

So the idea of withholding money from CMS pending the district meeting certain conditions was punitive from its inception.  Don’t say “How can I take funds?” and then turn around and say “It’s not about taking money.”

Does our school district need to be more intentional and transparent about closing the achievement gap?  Yes.  Do our leadership bodies need to do a better job at working together in general and, specifically, finding new ways to collaborate on addressing educational inequities?  Absolutely.  

This is not the way we make either of those things happen.

An incredibly difficult pandemic school year is drawing to a close–one in which students, teachers, administrators, bus drivers, nurses, and all members of our public school families have been stretched to the breaking point again and again.  

As we continue this important conversation about the Mecklenburg budget, our county leaders need to avoid the usual platitudes to educators along the lines of  “Thank you for everything you do for our children” if they’re going to threaten to take away the resources we depend on to do that work with the very next breath.  

A state legislator is howling indoctrination because my 7th graders are learning the ocean is polluted

A member of the North Carolina House of Representatives held up my teaching as an example of harmful indoctrination of children this week as state legislators met to discuss a new bill which would require teachers to post their lesson plans online for public review.

The K-12 Education Committee approved HB 755, also known as “An Act to Ensure Academic Transparency.” It passed the House by a vote of 66-50 and now moves on to the Senate.  

The legislation mandates that all lesson plans, including information about any supporting instructional materials as well as procedures for how an in-person review of lesson materials may be requested, be “prominently displayed” on school websites.  

Iredell County Republican Representative Jeffrey McNeely gave the bill two enthusiastic thumbs up, pointing to my teaching as an example of the hidden indoctrination that will be exposed if the bill is passed into law:

We tend to come to teach our kids with everything with a twist to it.  And I think transparency is one of the most important things we can do, and maybe what we’ve learned from this pandemic, through virtual, some of the parents actually seeing what their children are taught and how they’re taught. 

I saw in the Charlotte Observer the other week a English teacher was complaining because he had to do remote learning and in-person learning at the same time and it caused him to shorten his English class on environmental pollution. 

What you think about that? 

So I think this putting out to me this will help the parents going to the next grade be able to look and see what that teacher taught the year before, and hopefully we’re just gonna teach the kids, we’re not gonna try to indoctrinate ’em or teach ’em in a certain way to make ’em believe something other than the facts, the knowledge, the ability to write the ability to read.

McNeely is referring to an editorial I published in the Charlotte Observer last week about my experiences with hybrid teaching during the COVID 19 pandemic.  In the article I discussed being in the middle of a lesson with students both in person and on Zoom when the fire alarm rang, forcing me to prematurely end class for my remote students in the middle of an important conversation.

The Iredell County legislator ignored the overall point I was making about the challenges the pandemic has wrought for teachers and students, directing his tunnel vision at my opening words:  “Not long ago I was leading a discussion about environmental pollution with my 7th grade English class…

For McNeely, this line, which I “prominently displayed” in the state’s three largest newspapers, exposes a sinister plot to deviate from state standards in support of the leftist agenda.  Why else would an English teacher be discussing environmental pollution with students, if not “to make ’em believe something other than the facts, the knowledge, the ability to write the ability to read”?

I teach 7th grade English Language Arts in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.  We use EL Education’s Language Arts curriculum, which is organized into modules that last several weeks.  (The curriculum is open source, so materials are prominently displayed here.)

While working toward mastering state ELA standards, this year my students have studied the Lost Children of Sudan and the Harlem Renaissance, and right now we’re learning about plastic pollution.  Through our current module, Mecklenburg County’s 7th grade students have gained an understanding of how plastic has become an integral part of our lives over the years but also how much of it makes its way into the world’s oceans as microplastics, harming wildlife and posing a threat to humans as well.  

not “something other than the facts”

Not having a background in education, Representative McNeely may not be aware that teaching students to read and write involves selecting topics for them to read and write about

This process allows teachers to create a broad and engaging educational experience for students and enables us to integrate instruction across subject areas so that our students see connections in class content between my English class, for example, and their social studies, science, and math classes.  It’s not a leftist plot, it’s how school is supposed to work.  

This drum beating over indoctrination of students is getting completely absurd.  

The vast majority of the public trusts teachers to do their jobs and understands that we already have way too much on our plates without adding the enormous burden of posting everything we do in class online for the pleasure of Representative McNeely and the fringe handful of his constituents who are convinced they’re fighting an end of days culture war.

McNeely and his misguided colleagues need to put down their pitchforks and focus on doing what they were elected to do:  creating policies which will actually improve the lives of North Carolinians.

Hybrid COVID-19 classrooms are not sustainable for NC schools

*this article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer

Not long ago I was leading a discussion about environmental pollution with my 7th grade English class when the fire alarm rang. Fire alarms are a regular occurrence in schools, but this time I happened to have half my class present in the room and the other half attending on Zoom. With no idea whether it was a drill or a real fire, I was forced to tell my remote students class was ending, quickly shut down my laptop and lead my in-person students out to safety in the parking lot.

In a school year where unexpected challenges have become commonplace, this SNAFU didn’t seem to faze students. But as their teacher it struck me as a vivid example of the limitations of the hybrid model.

Hybrid teaching has been absolutely necessary this year. The COVID pandemic has killed almost 600,000 Americans and it’s still not over. It has been crucial to provide families with a remote option so they can make the right decisions for their own health and safety, and conducting business in survival mode has meant that public schools have not had the time or resources to create high quality virtual-only alternatives.

The result has been teachers doing the best they can to teach both online and in-person students at the same time. This approach has had definite drawbacks. Students who are learning from home are often not getting the individual attention they need, and those in the classroom are still spending way too much time staring at screens. With the added chaos of regular technology challenges, it has been far too easy for unengaged students to slip through the cracks despite the valiant efforts of their teachers to hold it all together. And the time and energy required to teach two different ways at once has many educators on the edge of burnout.

Too often our practice as a society is to put more and more on the plates of classroom teachers without sufficient attention to how our actions are impacting staff morale or the quality of instruction. As this school year draws to a close, it’s time to talk about how we will handle remote learning going forward to ensure that it’s a good experience for all stakeholders.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the innovation this health crisis has required has revealed things about all of us that we didn’t previously know. Virtual learning has worked very well for some. Certain teachers have developed amazing online teaching skills, and some students have flourished with the added responsibility and independence that it takes for successful learning from home. Having had a year to watch things play out, public school parents in many North Carolina counties are calling for an expansion of remote alternatives beyond the pandemic.

Durham Public Schools has already announced the launch of a new all-remote academy for the 2021-22 school year. Wake County is in the planning phase of a similar move. For its part, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is getting ready to survey parents to gauge interest. Legislation has been filed in both the North Carolina House and Senate which could also impact how virtual schools operate in the fall, so there are quite a few balls still in the air. All of which will cost money. Lawmakers should be prepared to help districts pay.

As our decision makers wrestle with how to chart the right path forward for virtual learning, the starting point must be acknowledging that hybrid learning is a “break in case of emergency” only option. Remote learning should require a long term commitment by families, and virtual schools need to be staffed by teachers who are skilled at that work and are able to focus on it exclusively.

Good teaching requires continual reflection on what’s working and what isn’t in an effort to continually improve. Here’s hoping that approach shapes policy decisions on virtual schools as well.