by Yustin Riopko
CHARLOTTE – The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners wants Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to make more of what they have, or at least rely less on what they don’t.
On May 17, CMS asked commissioners to increase its budget by $39.8 million for the next fiscal year to address what Superintendent Clayton Wilcox identified as his greatest concerns.
“The emotional health of our young people, the compensation for our employees, and our ability to keep them safe and secure during the day,” Wilcox said. “Those are the three highest priorities.”
Approximately $6.9 million of the requested increase would further supplement teacher pay, which Wilcox believes is a step in the right direction. The superintendent pointed out that a teacher with 10 years of experience would see an increase of $42.63 per month – or $1.98 a day.
“While it is a big number in terms of the county’s lift, to the individual employee it’s not a substantial increase,” Wilcox said. “But I think it’s directionally the right thing for us to do.”
Commissioner At Large Trevor Fuller wondered how the school system could increase the supplements even more, comparing county supplements here to those in other counties. Although most of the commissioners expressed support in some way for paying teachers more, some thought the school system should make room within its existing budget for those raises.
Chief Finance Officer Sheila Shirley says CMS has performed reductions and redirections to recover $258.4 million since 2009. But commissioners want CMS to show more initiative.
“If teachers and other personnel increases are a priority – and CMS says they are every year – I would love to see that built into the budget already,” District 5 Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said. “I like the idea that we should be leading the way and we should be bold, but it’s also important that we understand the comparisons between Meck[lenburg and other counties] are poor. In Mecklenburg County, we fund our Parks and Rec department. Wake County does not; the state funds theirs. If you want to slash Parks and Rec [here] and put those dollars into CMS or something else.”
$4.4 million of the requested increase would go toward mental health personnel, and another $9.2 million toward physical school security enhancements. These intentions resonate in the aftermath of the fatal mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Houston, which occurred just one day after CMS representatives and the school board met with commissioners about the budget.
Commissioners were responsive to the gravity of these issues, but Ridenhour pointed out they already give CMS money every year for counselors and health professionals, and Vice Chairman Jim Puckett doesn’t believe mental health should be a primary concern of the school system at all.
“To be brutally honest, to a large degree, that’s our job,” Puckett told Wilcox. “Social and emotional security of your students are part of the core services of the county. The extent that you’re having to invest large sums of money in something other than pure academic success – We need to talk about how we can change that and allow you to put academic success as a more lasered focus.”
Most commissioners found security to be a worthy expense. CMS hopes to start with higher risk facilities and eventually move into the other locations, improving door locks, reinforcing windows with security film, building perimeter fencing and updating surveillance systems.
Ridenhour and District 3 Commissioner George Dunlap both encouraged CMS to run any physical security plans by experts.
Since Mecklenburg’s growth in revenue is projected to be about $32.5 million for the next fiscal year, the county would have to cut money from elsewhere if they chose to meet CMS’s $39.8 million increase request.