County passes $2B budget; CMS starts ‘dispute resolution’ after $56M withheld

CHARLOTTE — Mecklenburg County commissioners followed through with a plan to withhold $56 million from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as part of their 2022 budget.

It’s a decision that CMS and the Board of Education has opposed from the start, and the board announced it will formally dispute the resolution.

Commissioners voted 9-2 on Tuesday night on the $2 billion budget that will withhold $56 million from CMS until the district makes an acceptable plan to improve school and student success.

Commissioners said there is a long-standing achievement gap between white and minority students, but CMS said they already have a plan and they presented it to county commissioners. Because the budget passed and millions are being withheld from CMS, the Board of Education feels it hasn’t received sufficient funding.

CMS said the county is outstepping its authority and that they have already produced a plan that addresses its concerns.

District leaders said they will challenge the county and have started the process of dispute resolution. The first step involves both boards coming together within seven days. If an agreement can’t be made then, here’s what happens next:

  • County commissioners and the Board of Education will have to agree on someone to serve as a mediator.
  • If they can’t come to a resolution, it will then head to formal mediation.
  • If that fails, the county would have to follow a funding formula outlined by state law.

Three county commissioners made a last-minute attempt to avoid any of that from happening.

Commissioners Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, Laura Meier and Ella Scarborough voted against putting restrictions on the funding, but their efforts were unsuccessful.

“I have to say that this issue with school funding is so egregious,” Rodriguez-McDowell said. “In my view, that it has overshadowed much of the good that we’re doing with this budget.”

In a lengthy statement released after the county vote Tuesday night, the Board of Education said half of the money -- about $27 million -- will impact school-based staff, including principals, and prevent pay raises among all teachers.

“We are dismayed that this funding dispute has reached the point where we must seek statutory resolution, but we will not stand by while the county impedes our efforts to educate students,” said Board of Education Chair Elsyse Dashew. “The misinformation campaign, political theater, and grandstanding by the county has only served to distract CMS from our core work. The county has claimed we have no strategic plan; we do, and they have seen it many times. They claim we can use federal COVID funds to cover non-COVID needs; we cannot. They even claim we have 166 schools; we have 176 schools.”

(Below is the full response from CMS)

*** FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE *** June 1, 2021 Board of Education seeks statutory resolution in County funding...

Posted by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education on Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The Board vice-chair pointed out that many students are already behind because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Cutting funds for political reasons is unacceptable under any circumstances,” said Thelma Byers-Bailey, who represents District 2. “But it is particularly offensive now. We know that many of our students lost ground when we had to shift to remote learning. It makes no sense to hold back money that is needed to support students. COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on our students, especially those who were already struggling before the pandemic. Now is not the time to play politics with school funding.”

The adopted budget maintains the current tax rate of 61.69 cents.

The budget goes into effect on July 1.

Other school board members shared their disappointment in the county’s vote:

Jennifer De La Jara (At-Large): “There has never been an instance of less money improving student performance, here in North Carolina or anywhere else. What the County is doing will be harmful, especially to students who are already at risk and need more support, not less. Even the GOP-controlled General Assembly has seen fit to hold school districts harmless from the short-term COVID impacts on enrollment, but the Democrats on the County Commission want to take money away from the very students they claim they want to help. We cannot afford to play these kinds of political games when our children’s education and our ability to give them the tools for a productive life are at stake.”

Lenora Shipp (At-Large): “I know from my years as a principal that County funding is key to providing students with the academic experience they need and deserve. State dollars alone will not do it. County dollars allow CMS to provide critically needed additional staff to high-needs schools. We cannot defund our way to equity.”

Rhonda Cheek (District 1): “As a member of the Board of Education, I care about student outcomes and achievement. We are not where we want to be. To get there is going to take a lot of cooperation from the Board of Education, CMS staff, our County Commission and other elected officials, and the citizens and community. I agree with the sentiment that it takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to educate that child. We need to work together and stay focused on student progress, which is what really matters.”

Dr. Ruby Jones (District 3): “It is a disappointment that two of the County Commissioners who are spreading misinformation and making false claims are former members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. The actions the commissioners are taking will have the greatest negative effect on the very children they claim to care about most: black and brown students. To see public officials behave so badly -- taking actions against the public interest and against our students -- is an embarrassment and a shamefully bad role model for our children.”

Carol Sawyer (District 4): “CMS is obligated to pay for fixed expenses that increase each year, such as health benefits, retirement pensions, and pass-through funding to charter schools. At the same time, the needs of our students continue to escalate. Meanwhile, County funding relative to revenue is taking a downward trajectory. I am saddened by our funding partners’ failure to prioritize education.”

Margaret Marshall (District 5): “These problems weren’t created overnight -- they have been building for years throughout many systems and decisions over time. Let’s not make another decision that won’t solve anything and will only make matters worse.”

Sean Strain (District 6): “While I share concerns about student outcomes and closing achievement gaps, there is no provision for contingent funding in the model that exists for the County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The Board of County Commissioners should fund K-12 education sufficiently. CMS should produce and transparently publish and manage an investment and action plan that responds to the needs of our community’s youth, confirming the district’s strategic investments and activities aligned with improving student outcomes and delivering our Mission, Vision and the 2024 Strategic Plan objectives and targets.”

Mecklenburg County approves plan to withhold $56 million from CMS

The controversial provision of the Mecklenburg County budget was approved last Wednesday with a 6-2 vote. The funds will be released to the district when school officials provide an acceptable plan with metrics aimed at improving low-performing schools, educational outcomes and college and career readiness for all students.

During budget straw votes on Wednesday, Mecklenburg County commissioners said too many students and schools are falling behind.

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

“They deserve somebody to stand up for them,” Commissioner Pat Cotham said. “If the school board is not going to stand up for them, we are accountable to the people and we need to stand up for them.”

“The same children we are not educating today, you will be complaining about them being on DSS and receiving aid from this county,” Commissioner Vilma Leake said. “Black boys, 70% of them cannot read and then you want to say, ‘Well, what have their parents done?’ My question is, ‘What has the school done?’”

Commissioners Susan Rodriguez-McDowell and Laura Meier voted against the plan and criticized the county’s approach.

“It is as if the fire station is demanding to inspect the smoke alarms before putting out the fire,” Meier said.

There is support in the community for the proposal. It has the backing of one of the county’s most powerful groups, the Black Political Caucus.

“The house is on fire and CMS is attempting to solve the problem with a trickling water hose,” BPC Chairwoman Stephanie Sneed said.

The BPC said the strategic plan CMS has been pushing is not good enough. While other communities across the country may be experiencing similar issues as CMS, former district Board Chair Arthur Griffin said that is no excuse.

“Educational injustices elsewhere does not mean that I have to accept educational injustices in my hometown of Charlotte-Mecklenburg,” he said.

Rodriguez-McDowell and Meier also tried to provide CMS with an additional $25 million, which would have fulfilled the entire CMS budget request. The effort failed. If the motion passed, it would have resulted in a 1.3-cent property tax increase for all taxpayers

Mecklenburg County commissioners will officially adopt the budget next week.

This all came one day after a 45-minute meeting between commissioners and CMS leaders concluded with no resolution. The meeting included County Chairman George Dunlap, County Manager Dena Diorio, CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew and CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston.

We now know what was said during a 45-minute closed door meeting on Wednesday between the county and CMS leaders.

>> CLICK HERE for a FAQ: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Budget May 2021]

Channel 9 government reporter Joe Bruno obtained the audio through a records request. He said the two sides never seemed to be on the same page and the audio obtained through that records request shows just how far apart the two bodies were.

The county manager said CMS has the information the county is looking for and that they should just release it.

“I guess what I struggle with a little bit, is if you have it, why can’t we just have it in one place where we can all see it?” Diorio can be heard asking.

The chair of the school board pushed back, though.

“I think it comes back to the framing,” Dashew said. “It’s that it is as though it is at gunpoint. You’re at the tip of the sword and, you know, when there’s this threat around it? Well, I mean, I don’t respond well to that.”

In a news conference following the meeting, Dashew said CMS went into the meeting with an “open mind” but left with no change.

“Today’s meeting resulted in no progress,” she said.

Dashew said the county is overstepping its authority, and the district is not going to go for contingencies. She warned if commissioners follow through with the proposal that the result will be felt by all.

“This will impact students and staff in our classrooms,” she said.

Closed door meeting between Meck County and CMS leaders

A closed-door meeting between Mecklenburg County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders Thursday resulted in many tense moments with no solutions.

Channel 9 obtained the audio of the meeting through an open-records request. You can download the audio and listen to it here.

After Chairman George Dunlap welcomed CMS leaders and thanked them for attending the meeting, Dunlap said he was disappointed by the response about the budget by CMS leaders.

“I think that when the initial proposal came out, there were a lot of comments made by CMS folk that weren’t so kind,” he said.

“Gentle pushback when you say we responded with unkind comments, because I just want to be very clear, that we have been very deliberate to be kind of above the fray with this,” CMS Board Chairwoman Elyse Dashew responded. “We are trying not to get into a tit-for-tat.”

Later in the meeting, Dunlap pointed out there is community support behind the county’s decision. Dashew interpreted his remarks as a threat.

[Meck County leaders upset with CMS after virtual meeting to discuss budget]

“I will tell you that this has some very strong implications throughout the community. Far more reaching than, I think, some people can imagine,” Dunlap said. “It has funding implications for future bonds. It has political implications for upcoming elections.”

“What I heard from you or maybe it just landed on me this way, and that wasn’t what you intended, but it sounded like you were threatening us over bonds and over elections,” Dashew responded.

Dunlap said he was just sharing information.

County Manager Dena Diorio claimed CMS has the information Mecklenburg County is looking for, and she questioned why the district won’t release it. Dashew said it boils down to the county’s approach.

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

“I guess what I struggle with a little bit is if you have it, why can’t we just have it in one place where we can all see it?” Diorio said.

“I think it comes back to the framing. It’s that it is as though it is at gunpoint. You’re at the tip of the sword,” Dashew said. “And you know, when there’s this threat around it? Well, I mean, I don’t respond well to that.”

(WATCH: With no deal in place, CMS, county could engage in rare dispute process)

>> Click here for CMS’ plan, which has already been presented to county commissioners.

With no deal in place, CMS, county could engage in rare dispute process

After the budget passes, and if the school board believes it hasn’t received sufficient funding, state law dictates what happens next.

Kara Millonzi, a Robert W. Bradshaw, Jr., distinguished professor of Public Law and Government at the UNC School of Government, said the school board has the option to initiate a dispute resolution process. The process is outlined in the state statute here.

Within seven days of the budget passing, the Board of Education must initiate the process by calling for a joint meeting with the Board of Commissioners. Both boards must agree on someone to serve as a mediator. If they can’t, the senior resident Superior Court judge will appoint one.

If they can’t work it out, the two bodies will head to formal mediation. Unlike the joint meeting, the deliberations of this mediation are confidential.

If mediation fails, what happens next depends on what the dispute is over. If it is about operating expenses, there is a default formula that determines what the county has to provide the district. If the fight is over the capital, the school district can take the county to court.

“Disagreements between a board of county commissioners and school board are fairly frequent. They happen yearly in many counties,” said Millonzi. “Triggering the dispute resolution process is pretty rare. And getting to that third step in the process is even rarer.”

[CMS parents voice concerns as district works through reassignment plans]

Dunlap declined to comment on Tuesday’s meeting, saying he would address the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners about it on Wednesday.

(WATCH: Controversial budget debate between CMS, county commissioners reaches stalemate)

Mecklenburg County Chairman George Dunlap offered a potential olive branch when he opened last week’s Mecklenburg County Commissioners meeting on East Fourth Street.

He invited Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston and CMS leaders to meet with him, Vice Chair Elaine Powell and County Manager Dena Diorio.

[RELATED: Meck County leaders upset with CMS after virtual meeting to discuss budget]

“It is my hope that they will accept this invitation and that we can work towards addressing their concerns,” Dunlap said.

And CMS has done just that. CMS Chairperson Elyse Dashew told Channel 9′s Elsa Gillis that she, Winston and Vice Chairperson Thelma Byers-Bailey met with commissioners on Tuesday.

After the meeting, CMS leaders held a news conference where they said no progress was made.

CMS has a lot of concerns. County commissioners are thinking about withholding $56 million from the district until leaders produce a plan aimed to improve educational outcomes and college and career readiness for all students. The district said the proposal would hurt students.

“Funding reductions and holdbacks of this magnitude impact the classroom,” the district said in a FAQ on the proposal. “Period.”

At the conference, Dashew said if the commissioners adopt the budget as presented it will result in $81 million in shortfall in funding and that will impact the classroom despite what county leaders have said.

For example, the district said the plan would reduce the local budget for finance and human resources by about half of what it would’ve been. Hiring and paying for teachers and other school staff is included in that. With fewer staff members, it will impact their classrooms.

During public comment recently, teachers echoed those concerns.

Dashew also said it will take the whole community to tear down decades of inequities and schools can’t be looked at in a vacuum.

According to Winston, the district has a strategic plan that they’ve shared with county leaders and can be found on the CMS website. He said he and district leaders have never been more committed to this work.

“Everything we do in CMS we do it with the lens of equity,” Winston said. “Our board has created an equity committee of community members. We’re in the process of creating internal staff equity committee. We are doing the work. Does the work happen overnight? Absolutely not.

[FAQ: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Budget May 2021]

The topic is polarizing and will continue to be as commissioners debate the budget ahead of the early June adoption. Several pastors thanked commissioners for the proposal and asked them to stand strong.

“Leadership is not an easy thing. We like to be in positions of leadership, except for when it’s hard,” the Rev. Jordan Boyd said. “Sometimes when it’s difficult, many shrink from the cause. But you’ve not trumped from this because you stood for this cause.”

“I ask you to please stand up,” Hamani Fisher said. “Please continue to take the stance you are taking and hold the CMS Board of Education to the fire.

Dunlap has recently come under fire for criticizing Winston’s background.

“Prior to 2004, Earnest was a reporter with the Charlotte Observer. That’s what he did. In 2004, CMS hired him to be an English teacher and teach journalism,” Dunlap said at a Black Political Caucus forum Sunday evening. “He became the chief of staff for the former superintendent. When no one else would come to CMS, they made him superintendent.”

CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew said the board was “appalled” by Dunlap’s comments.

Dunlap did not back down from his criticism.

“What I find appalling is that the School Board would defend why they chose a newspaper reporter with no educational experience to run one of the largest school districts in the county,” Dunlap wrote on Twitter. “Even more interesting is that no one ever said that I lied about his qualifications.”

Two county commissioners, Laura Meier and Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, condemned Dunlap’s remarks.

“Our board chair publicly disparaged (Winston), and I feel I should publicly state that I absolutely disagree with these antics,” Meier wrote on Twitter. “Why we must create further divide is beyond my understanding. Where we stand on CMS board budget makes no difference here. It’s simple human decency.”

During the commissioner reports, Rodriguez-McDowell said she was disappointed in Dunlap’s remarks.

Prior to the conclusion of the county meeting, Dunlap said he is a passionate advocate for educating children and believes it is time for a change.

Another group throwing its support behind the county’s proposal is the NAACP. The group wants a 3-year independent forensic audit of the school district’s operating numbers and asking the Secretary of State to intervene.

They’re concerned about equity in minority schools. The group held a news conference Tuesday evening to call for action.

(WATCH: Meck County leaders upset with CMS after virtual meeting to discuss budget)