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

CHARLOTTE — On Monday, Charlotte leaders rallied with a powerful message for Charlotte-Mecklenburg School: Stop failing our kids.

The county wants to withhold $56 million from CMS’s budget because it said too many children of color are struggling in school.

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Withholding that money means cuts for several departments in the district, all of which shouldn’t impact students directly -- at least according to commissioners.

Some of those commissioners want to hold onto the $56 million until the school board comes up with a specific plan for addressing the achievement gap.

Again, these cuts would not have a direct impact on the classroom, according to the proposal. A group of local pastors, along with Commissioner Vilma Leake, support the move, saying CMS needs accountability.

“Anybody that you give money to you must hold them accountable for performing the things that they say they’re going to do,” Leake said.

Leake and the African American Faith Alliance for Educational Advancement rallied outside the Government Center in uptown Monday asking for CMS to show them the district’s plan.

The group said they want to see a more specific plan of action and accountability behind how school leaders will improve educational outcomes for all students.

Clergy members said they’ve been working and meeting with the district for a while and, based on the numbers, the district is failing many African American students and something needs to change.

“It’s educational genocide so the message that we’re sending is there has to be accountability,” said Cedric Dean with the African American Faith Alliance for Educational Advancement. “You just can’t take the truck and back it up and say give us the money and we’re going to go do what we want with it.”

Closing the achievement gap is something CMS leaders laid out in their 2024 strategic plan back in 2018.

One of the goals was to cut gaps in college and career readiness by at least half for each sub-group. For example, during the 2016-2017 school year nearly 67% of black 3rd graders in English language arts were not meeting the mark.

As for progress, CMS said a few months ago that they didn’t get where they wanted in the first year and year 2 was interrupted by COVID, with end of year testing suspended. The district is now in year 3.

Reverend Dr. Dennis Williams said the strategic plan doesn’t go far enough.

The plan lacks specificity about strategies and timelines and the goals are not bold enough,” he said. “Getting away from the mindset of incremental gains, we need major gains.”

CMS has acknowledged that they can improve but also said the County Commission shouldn’t act as an oversight board.

Not everyone outside the government center supported the county proposal.

Minister and CMS grad Deirdre Jonese Austin told Channel 9 she thinks the focus should be more on community partnerships to help close the gaps with equitable access to Pre-K and summer school programs.

“I believe that you put your money where your values is so if we are not willing to invest in this, if we are not willing to stand in the gap when the teachers are doing their best, then what are we really doing?” she said.

Leaders with the alliance said they recognize this will take the whole community to change this problem, but it starts with more transparency and accountability.

Mecklenburg County could withhold $56M from CMS over low-performing schools

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio is proposing a $56 million hold on some Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools funding until the district provides an acceptable plan to improve the lowest-performing schools.

Diorio made the announcement last Thursday during Mecklenburg County’s budget unveiling.

The $56 million would be in restricted contingency “pending a plan to improve educational outcomes and college and career readiness for all students, including quantifiable goals, specified targets and defined timeframes presented to the Board of County Commissioners.”

“We’re giving them half-a-billion dollars to educate the children of Mecklenburg County, and we expect to get some outcomes for the money that we are giving them,” Diorio said.

Diorio said she wants to hold onto the funding until the school board comes up with a specific plan with specific goals for addressing the achievement gap.

According the county, the $56 million is recommended to be held from the following categories:

  • School Leadership: $27.4M
  • Financial & Human Resource Services: $11M
  • Accountability: $2.5M
  • Policy, Leadership & Public Relations: $15.1M

In a Zoom meeting Thursday night, several local pastors told Channel 9′s Dashawn Brown that they applaud the county manager’s ultimatum because something has to change.

“The data is clear. African-American students are performing well below grade level and have been doing so for multiple years,” Former Administrator and Educator Pastor Dennis Williams said.

County Commissioner Vilma Leake agrees. She said it’s time for CMS to face a harsh reality that too many of its minority students are not making the grade in the classroom.

“We need it for accountability,” she said. “Anybody that you give money to you must hold them accountable for performing the things that they say they’re going to do.”

Leake said the Board of Education needs to come up with a plan that will enhance the lives of local children.

Diorio echoes Leake’s belief that the hold will help with accountability and said it could impact top CMS leaders salaries but not students.

“This is a way to tie funding to accountability,” Diorio said.

In a statement, CMS leaders disagreed.

“Our funding request this year represents what we know our students need as the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” the school district stated in a statement. “We are disappointed that Mecklenburg County has proposed denying approximately 16% of our local funding request. This denial will adversely affect our students and staff.”

Diorio said she notified Superintendent Earnest Winston of her decision prior to the announcement. The hold is subject to county commission approval.

“We will not let this distraction get in the way of a strong finish to this challenging school year,” Winston said. “Our teachers and staff are doing the work to help finish instruction and meet the needs of our students.”

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In a news conference after the budget presentation, Diorio claimed Winston told her he understood the county’s position and that he was disappointed. In a statement posted to Twitter Thursday evening, Winston disputed those remarks.

“To say I understand the county’s position is to mischaracterize my sentiment,” he said. “I will never understand that when it is clear our students face higher hurdles than before the pandemic our county funding partners would consider taking money from our schools. Students deserve better.”

In a video posted on Facebook, school board chair Elyse Dashew appeared to bristle at the county’s ultimatum. She acknowledged they have a lot of work to do to address the achievement gap, but suggested they don’t need the county to look over their shoulder.

“That’s really hard work and we’re here for it,” Dashew said. “We hold ourselves accountable for that work and we respect the voters who hold us accountable for that work. Just a reminder that the county commission is not an oversight board.”

Of the $1.99 billion budget, CMS would receive $549 million, an increase of $6 million. CMS requested $26 million additional funds. Diorio claims Mecklenburg County overpaid CMS $18 million last year because CMS incorrectly projected enrollment by around 7,000 students. The proposed budget does not include a tax increase.

Dashew said she doesn’t want to negotiate the issue in public. Leake and a group of pastors will be holding a rally Monday morning at 11 a.m. to keep it in the public eye.

The Mecklenburg County Commissioners will hold a public hearing on May 12.