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Mecklenburg County considering school funding change

Mecklenburg County commissioners are considering a change to the formula the county uses to fund Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in an effort to end the so-called “budget dance” each year. The change, proposed by Republican Jim Puckett and supported by Democrats Vilma Leake and George Dunlap, would set a fixed percentage of the county budget to go to CMS each year.

“We would not entertain ‘special projects’ or deal with any single issue funding but would leave all funding decisions to the schools,” Puckett wrote in an email to County Manager Dena Diorio recently.

Puckett, Leake, and Dunlap are all former school board members.

Right now, Mecklenburg County devotes roughly half of its $1.6 billion annual budget to education — including CMS, but also other initiatives. The county’s budget director says commissioners have allocated $1.5 billion for CMS in the last three years.

Puckett’s proposal would require commissioners and the school board to agree on a new funding formula: the county would agree to set a fixed percentage of its budget to be devoted to CMS capital and operating expenses, and the school district would agree to develop a budget that stays within the agreed upon percentage. The school board would get to decide how the dollars are allocated inside the CMS budget.

Supporters of the idea — including some in CMS and in the community — say a model like Puckett’s would help eliminate the “budget dance” that happens every year. It goes like this: CMS creates a budget that includes a funding request from Mecklenburg County, the county staff reviews it and recommends a different number to the county manager, the county manager’s budget is released, the CMS camp lobbies for more money, commissioners decide, and the community becomes frustrated that the final budget doesn’t align with the CMS request.

Last year, for example, CMS asked the county for $40 million in new funding; it received $17 million in additional funding in the final county budget.

CMS leaders, the school board, and public education advocates have privately discussed the possibility of a funding formula change, with some stipulations, for a couple of years. Puckett proposed a similar measure about a decade ago but it didn’t garner much support.

School board Chair Mary McCray told The Charlotte Observer that she would likely support such a change now, and thinks other board members will, too.

County commissioners have a budget retreat at the end of this month where they plan to discuss the idea with budget staff, who would be in charge of implementing any new proposal. It’s not clear whether all parties could agree on the new funding formula in time to use it during this year’s budget process. Behind-the-scenes work to develop spending plans for the county and the school system has already begun, and budget discussions will ramp up in about six weeks.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.