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**


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