An early look at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools budget process foreshadows another year of tough conversations about how North Carolina and Mecklenburg County choose to fund the state’s second-largest school system. It also offers some indication of the community’s priorities for CMS spending.
The budget isn’t complete, but school board members heard a preliminary discussion about its contents last week. CMS’ spending plan will include $27.6 million to fund existing programs and services and to keep up with enrollment growth. To be clear, that figure essentially pays for the status quo. It doesn’t include funding for new initiatives.
“That number is a high number before we get started,” Superintendent Ann Clark said.
The budget would assume a roughly $5.3 million increase in the cost of staff salaries and benefits, most of that required as a “local match” for Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposal to increase the starting teacher salary to $35,000 per year. Continuing programs would add another $8.7 million to the budget. About half of that money would be used to pay for teacher assistant positions not funded by the state. An additional $2.6 million would be necessary to cover the cost of driver education programs — a cost currently paid for with state dollars, but which lawmakers say they intend to shift to localities this year.
The school board’s 2015 legislative agenda asks the General Assembly to continue to pay for the driver education programs or not require that school districts run them, calling the choice “an unfunded mandate.”
One of the main drivers of the budget increase — roughly a third of the $27 million in new money — is charter school funding.
CMS anticipates an increase of about 2,400 students next school year, requiring $2.4 million, and $3.2 million in costs related to additional space for new and existing students.
One of the main drivers of the budget increase — roughly a third of the $27 million in new money — is charter school funding. Local charter schools are projected to add about 2,000 new students next school year, requiring $8 million in funds to be passed through CMS to charter schools that serve students who live in Mecklenburg County.
The school board heard the results from several surveys of district leaders, teachers, students, and the public. Each survey asked respondents to rank their priorities for CMS spending in the upcoming year.
Across the groups, there was strong support for:
- Salary increases for all CMS staff members
- Maintaining the current level of teacher assistant positions
- Expanding literacy supports
- Strengthening student support services
Interestingly, salary increases were not among the top four priorities of CMS senior leaders, including executive staff, principals, and executive directors. The presentation said that when respondents were asked why they did not select a salary increase as a priority, “64 percent of leadership indicated a 1 percent increase is too insignificant or won’t be supported by funding partners and won’t actually happen.”
CMS typically finalizes the superintendent’s recommended budget in April or early May. After the school board approves a spending plan, the proposal is given to Mecklenburg County Commissioners, who usually vote on a county budget — including funding for CMS — in June.
What will come into view between now and then is how much money CMS will ask county commissioners to approve for things such as pay raises or new programs. Typically it’s this figure which leads to controversy.