Staff members from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools encouraged parents to participate in the budget process and become advocates for their schools at a Saturday, Feb. 26, meeting organized by the Mecklenburg Parent-Teacher Association Council and educational advocacy group MeckEd.
“We must advocate for there to be as few cuts as possible,” Bill Anderson, president of MeckEd, said. “It’s not the Board of Education that makes these decisions, it’s the state representatives and our county commissioners. They need to hear from you.”
Parents from a number of south Charlotte schools attended the meeting in hopes of having their questions answered and learning how to make a difference.
“I’m looking for ways to be more effective as a citizen,” Elyse Dashew, a parent at Smith Academy of International Languages, said. “I came to the meeting because I have budget questions, and I think we all need to learn how we can help and act as advocates for our children.”
Superintendent Peter Gorman began his presentation with an overview of the budget process. Most of the district’s funding comes from three sources: the federal government, the state and the county.
Federal money came into the district through $76.3 million in stimulus funds over the past two years, which accounted for 16 percent of this current year’s budget.
“Stimulus funds saved us over the past few years,” Gorman said. “Those dollars end.”
The rest of the budget comes from the state, which accounted for 55 percent, the county, which accounted for 26 percent and local sources, which accounted for approximately 3 percent. Both the state and the county are facing budget shortfalls and will cut the money allocated to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools next year.
“People are our largest expense,” Gorman said. “What’s our second largest? Transportation. We’ve cut millions from transportation. Third largest? Utilities. We’ve taken about $6 million out of utilities. Ask your kids what it’s like in their classroom. It’s hotter or colder than before because we keep tweaking the thermostat.”
The district has an operating budget, which pays for the day-to-day operations of the schools, including salaries, busing and food service, and a capital budget, which pays for long-term projects like building new schools.
“You can spend operating on capital, but you can’t legally spend capital on operating,” Gorman said. “That’s led to some challenges for us.”
Gorman also clarified how the district is able to use funds from the N.C. Education Lottery. Lottery funds can be used for capital projects, class size reductions and funding pre-kindergarten programs.
“The lottery provides dollars directly to counties, not school districts, for the capital budget,” Gorman said. “Mecklenburg County uses that money – about $16 million last year – to pay down bond debt. Every dollar that they pay down in bond debt is another dollar for our operating budget.”
Last year, Gorman said, the county chose to keep the lottery funds and cut the funds for paying down bond debt from the district budget.
“Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools does not get a check from the lottery,” Gorman said. “If it were to end tomorrow, we would be hurt, but I can’t show you (what) we fund with lottery money.”
Gorman listed the budget cuts already approved by the Board of Education and explained why certain cuts – eliminating one support position from each school, increasing class sizes by two in grades four through 12 and changing the weighted student staffing formula – will receive funding first if additional dollars come into the district.
“Weighted student staffing is based on the concept that some students need more support than others,” Gorman said. “If you qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program, we weight you as 1.3. If you don’t, we weight you as 1, and that determines how many teachers a school gets.”
Under the plan approved by the board Jan. 25, economically disadvantaged students will be weighted as 1.25 instead of as 1.3, cutting 134 teachers and saving $8 million.
“Next to teacher effectiveness, (weighted student staffing) is the biggest reason we have been able to close the achievement gap,” Gorman said. “We spend a lot of money on the program, but our schools need it because not all students come to us with the same level of preparation. If we don’t invest in them now, we’ll invest in them later, and it will be in the wrong areas.”
The effects of weighted student staffing on per-pupil spending are easy to measure. The district spends $4,406 per student at Ballantyne Elementary, compared to $10,393 per student at high-poverty Thomasboro Elementary.
“We have more kids on grade level at Thomasboro because of that program,” Gorman said. “It’s benefiting our kids, but these are tough times.”
The disparities between high-income and low-income schools also can be measured in class sizes. For example, there are 173 classes at Myers Park High this year with at least 35 students. There are none at West Charlotte High.
“I don’t think we’re balancing the budget on the backs of any one group,” Gorman said. “I think we’re balancing the budget on the backs of all students, unfortunately. That’s why I’ve recommended that if money comes back in, it goes to reducing class sizes… The ultimate answer is that we’ve got to grow the pie to give resources and opportunities to all.”
Gorman said at the meeting the two most important factors in closing the achievement gap faster are the weighted student staffing program and programs designed to measure teacher effectiveness.
The superintendent’s plan to close the gap by assessing teacher effectiveness and moving to a pay-for-performance model during a budget crisis has generated controversy throughout the district.
“It’s harder now to be a teacher in (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools) than it has been in years,” Gorman said. “The budget cuts are part of that, but it’s also because we’re talking about teacher effectiveness. Some say it’s anti-teacher to talk about teacher effectiveness. I don’t think it’s anti-teacher, I think it’s pro-child. It’s what you do with the information that makes the difference.”
Across the nation, 99 percent of teachers are rated as “effective” through traditional evaluation methods, Gorman said.
“We’re trying to be more truthful about that, but our timing makes it difficult,” Gorman said. “I absolutely believe it’s impacting morale, but I believe we have to do it. We’re trying to balance it all and we don’t have a good solution.”
District staff also answered questions about ideas for cutting the budget that were not implemented.
For instance, proposals for cutting costs by tweaking the school calendar are not feasible under a state law that dictates public school can’t start before August 25 or end after June 10.
“We’re fighting the tourism industry and the now the camps in the mountains have weighed in,” Gorman said. “It’s become bipartisan against us. It’s the stupidest law… Every nation that’s ahead of us in performance has a longer school day and year than we do. Every one.”
The board also has heard suggestions about redirecting funds currently allocated to the district television station and Parent University, but neither is fully funded by the district.
The district television station airs a loop of pre-recorded programming and Board of Education meetings at a cost of $50,000 per year, while Parent University is funded by outside grants.
“All of our operating dollars come from outside our school system,” Jerri Haigler, the district’s executive director of family and community services, said.
Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis also addressed the proposal that parent-teacher organizations take on covering teacher salaries.
“(Parent-Teacher Associations) cannot fund teachers,” Davis said. “It’s against their charter. Can citizen groups fund teachers? We’re struggling with that question, but we’re taking the position that they can fund extras, not core components.”
Every time a teacher is hired, they go into the system for benefits and are put on track toward tenure and the state retirement plan. Allowing private groups to hire teachers would complicate this process.
“When it comes to bringing staff in, we have to be in control,” Gorman said. “It also raises the question of equity.”
At the meeting, Gorman and Davis asked parents not to assume the budget proposed by Gov. Perdue, which recommended cutting less from education than anticipated, means the crisis has been averted.
“The governor’s budget proposal includes a lot of transfer of cost,” Davis said. “That’s not a real budget cut. That’s just moving money around.”
For instance, the state will no longer pay for new school buses. Paying for new buses, which cost approximately $80,000, will become the district’s responsibility, Gorman said.
“A lot will change between what the governor proposed and what the legislature will pass,” Davis said. “I’d be very cautious in assuming that the picture has gotten better.”
Gorman and Davis invited parents to help ensure fewer cuts by asking their representatives for more funding.
“We really need your help in advocating for our school system,” Davis said. “Invite your county commissioner to your school. Let them see the needs of your students. Put a face to these numbers. Direct that heartfelt, real-world, personal situation that your child is in to your county commissioner.”
Several of the parents at the meeting urged their peers to take the information back to their schools and share the facts with the community.
“We want everybody to understand the budget and be aware of what’s going on,” Stacey Schuler, a Providence Spring Elementary parent, said. “Most people don’t understand it, and we want our parents to know how it will affect our children so they can impact the process before it’s too late.”
The Providence Spring Parent-Teacher Association is working to bring a MeckEd budget presentation to their school so all parents have the chance to learn about the challenges and how they can get involved.
“The only tool we have is a scalpel,” Davis said. “That’s why we need your help.”
To learn more about the budget process, visit the district’s budget page at www.cms.k12.nc.us/mediaroom/budget/Pages/default.aspx or www.mecked.org.