School board chairman: County must spare schools
by Staff Writer
by Tori Hamby
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education signaled its intention to request an extra $55 million in funding from Mecklenburg County, which would save hundreds of teaching positions and keep hundreds of students enrolled in preschool programs.
At the board’s meeting Tuesday, April 26, Chairman Eric Davis spoke to the need to protect the final five items listed on Superintendent Peter Gorman’s list of potential budget cuts, which include:
• Many of the district’s 80 Bright Beginnings pre-kindergarten classes.
• 486 teacher positions.
• 400 teacher assistants and 164 support positions (one at each school).
• Extra staff for schools with a high percentage of needy students. School officials refer to this “weighted-student” staffing and determine that support based on the percentage of students receiving free or discounted lunches.
• Preserving current class sizes in the fourth through 12th grades.
“We stretched our system to full capacity. We can go no further without harm,” Davis told the board. Gorman’s proposed budget only asks the county for an extra $10 million, due to enrollment and cost increases. Gorman’s budget is based upon an assumed $100 million funding cut from local, state and federal sources and trims about 1,500 jobs, including 600 teacher positions.
Davis said his plan would dramatically reduce the cuts needed.
More than 15 parents and community members spoke at the beginning of the meeting, during a public hearing about the budget, and said they’re willing to pay higher taxes if the additional money goes to the school system. Many said they would encourage county commissioners to take advantage of this year’s property revaluation.
Unless county commissioners lower the current tax rate, the majority of property owners will pay higher tax bills because the assessed value of their property has increased in the past eight years, the last time the county revalued property. On Tuesday night, speakers suggested commissioners designate those extra tax dollars for the schools.
Jessica Schorr Saxe, a Charlotte family physician, spoke about the importance of pre-kindergarten programs to a child’s mental development.
“Skip ahead 15 years. Where do we see these children?” Schorr Saxe said, referring to children who may not graduate from high school due to delayed childhood development.
“These are critical times in development when certain skills can be acquired.”
Pam Grundy, a parent and leader of MecklenburgACTS, a grassroots coalition of Charlotte-Mecklenburg parents and teachers, also asked Gorman to “pause the rush” to use student standardized test scores to determine teacher pay, especially during a time in which budget shortfalls could result in teacher reductions.
“If our concerns about this testing continue to be met with a brick wall, this support will erode,” Grundy said.
Board member Kay McGarry said she opposes Davis’ plan, saying that the district has not looked into all possible ways to do more with less money, including renegotiating vendor contracts and merging bus routes.
North Mecklenburg board representative Rhonda Lennon indicated she does not want to reduce support staff, eliminate more teaching assistants or increase class sizes. But she wants the school board to consider:
• Reducing the $8,000 the system spends per pupil for Bright Beginnings.
• Finding a better way to calculate extra staffing for schools with needs. She doesn’t believe the school lunch program is a good measure.
Lennon also told board members she was speaking for the “silent majority” who want the school district to rein in spending.
“I was elected to the board as a fiscal conservative, and I will vote on the budget as a fiscal conservative,” she said.
Tim Morgan, who represents the Ballantyne area, responded to Lennon. Although his district is demographically similar to north Mecklenburg, Morgan said he supports Davis’ plan because preserving current Bright Beginnings and extra staffing for needy schools is crucial to students in poorer neighborhoods.
“Those are the cuts that, if they go through, will negatively affect student achievement,” Morgan said.
Davis said the board, which voted to cancel a budget session scheduled for Wednesday, April 27, would decide how much to ask from the county by May 10.