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.