‘I did what you told me to do’: County manager defends holding $56M from CMS

CHARLOTTE — At the end of every Mecklenburg County meeting, commissioners can present reports. Most of the time, those reports are tame and largely unnoteworthy.

But at the county commission meeting Tuesday afternoon, District 6 Rep. Susan Rodriguez-McDowell used her allotted time to tear into the most controversial part of the FY22 budget, County Manager Dena Diorio’s proposal to hold $56 million from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools until the district produces an acceptable plan aimed at improving educational outcomes and college and career readiness.

[PAST COVERAGE: ‘Stop failing our kids’: Charlotte leaders rally as county aims to withhold $56M from CMS]

“We are not acting as true partners to solve a problem. Instead we have created a scapegoat. This plan is punitive in nature,” Rodriguez-McDowell said. “This so-called plan is actually going to make matters worse and set our children back further.”

Rodriguez-McDowell said she understands the frustration of decades of low performance but called the proposal a “charade.” She criticized Diorio for bringing it forward.

“For a leader who knows how government works, to make this a part of an actual plan, with a serious face, blew me out of the water,” she said. “I expect this from less serious actors but not from the county manager, a seasoned professional who I respect.”

Diorio took offense at Rodriguez-McDowell’s remarks and offered a fierce defense of the plan.

“This is based on the board’s priority. You said to me at our retreat, ‘Think outside the box and find a way to improve educational outcomes and tie funding to budget allocations,’” Diorio said. “I did what you told me to do. Don’t turn around now and say you are shocked and appalled. I will push back on that all day long. I did exactly what you told me to do.”

Rodriguez-McDowell countered by saying she did not ask Diorio to take this action. Diorio said she was referring to the board as a collective.

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If any other county commissioners backed Rodriguez-McDowell’s concerns, they did not speak up. Prior to the fiery exchange, several leaders said they backed Diorio’s proposal.

“We are using the tools we have available to us to ensure that we have a mechanism by which we properly fund education,” Chair George Dunlap said.

[READ MORE: Who are the highest-paid employees of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools?]

“We have a responsibility as a board to be able to produce and hold people accountable,” Commissioner Vilma Leake said.

CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston briefly discussed the proposal at the district’s board meeting Tuesday evening, calling it “problematic.” Winston said the district is preparing for an $81 million gap in funding from what they requested and could possibly get from Mecklenburg County. He did not indicate if the district will comply with the county’s requests for plans. He warned of potential unintentional consequences to students.

“There is the very real potential for students and staff to be adversely affected,” he said.

(WATCH: ‘Stop failing our kids’: Charlotte leaders rally as county aims to withhold $56M from CMS)