CHARLOTTE – Mecklenburg County commissioners have agreed to release funding to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools while the school board will strive to be more transparent as a result of mediation.

The county intended to withhold $56 million of non-instructional funds from CMS's budget until the district provided a plan to ensure improved student performance. The school board said the county didn't have that authority, triggering the mediation.

“The board has been for some time now seeking transparency and accountability, and I think with this agreement, we're going to get that,” said George Dunlap, who chairs the county commission.

The county will not only release the $56 million to the district, but it will also provide an extra $11 million in operating funding for the coming school year. The county will also grant CMS up to $1 million to improve its website to showcase school improvement plans as well as pay consulting fees related to a Student Outcomes-Focused Governance model.

“The model includes clearly defining goals to improve student outcomes, redesigning board meetings to focus on the goals and conducting annual evaluations of the superintendent based on these goals,” County Manager Dena Diorio explained.

The school board will talk about the model in a facilitated workshop with commissioners.

The district will post the annual "State of the School Report" as well as several other topics, including equity, restorative practices, culturally responsive instruction, short-term suspension policy and multi-tiered systems of support.

“We are delighted to turn the page on this budget dispute. The children of Mecklenburg County need us to work together on their behalf,” said school board chair Elyse Dashew in a statement released by CMS “We look forward to collaborating with the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners – respectfully and strategically, in accordance with our distinct roles and responsibilities. This kind of collaboration is key to making progress in addressing the systemic issues that challenge so many of our students.”

Commissioners Lauren Meier and Susan Rodriquez-McDowell didn't support withholding money from CMS's budget, but they do see positive outcomes from mediation, such as transparency, collaboration and a focus on student outcomes.

“No, we don't get to tell the board of education what to do, but we do get to hear what they're going to do and we are going to work with them and we are going to collaborate,” Meier said. “I think at the end of the day, this is what the community wants to see is their elected officials work together to better the education of every child in this community.”

Rodriguez-McDowell would like to review how the county commission and school board got to this point.

“The past few months have been a terrible distraction for our community,” Rodriguez-McDowell said. “Many relationships have been strained. Our reputation has been stained not because of our desire to help students, but in our governance and process.”

She urged colleagues to look at the bigger funding picture and fund CMS properly. She also criticized the N.C. General Assembly for not supporting Gov. Roy Cooper's education budget.

Commissioners Leigh Altman and Elaine Powell believe the county needed to intervene with the district's budget based on the feedback they were getting from the community.

Powell compared the “outcry of concern” from the community to someone calling 911 in an emergency situation. The person dialing 911 doesn’t want to hear “that’s not in our authority.”

“This conversation needed to happen, if only because so many people did not realize the depth and extent of the crisis,” Altman said, noting she pushed as hard as she would have done for her own children.

“In a mediated settlement, you don't get everything that you want,” Altman said. “But there is no doubt in my mind that we have materially moved the needle for transparency and for accountability in a way that will be very constructive not only for this year, but going forward, that we will continue to build upon.”

Commissioner Vilma Leake, a former school board member who has long expressed concern for students in her district, said the telephone calls she received regarding the mediation were about the money, not about educating all children.

She said this reminded her of the 1950s and 1960s when the community wasn’t educating the children that needed it the most.

Ultimately, Leake wants to ensure children are prepared to get jobs post-graduation. She pointed to 42 failing schools in CMS.

“All I say to this community is wake up,” Leake said. “We need you to be out here fighting for our children and not worried so much about the money.”

Commissioner Mark Jerell said he voted based on his perspective and life experience. In his household, Cs, Ds and Fs weren’t acceptable. He wants to extend that same standard to the entire community.

“We have to make sure, no matter who you are, no matter what zip code that you occupy, that it's a zip code of excellence,” Jerrell said. “It's a community of excellence. I would fight to my dying breath to ensure that excellence prevails in this community while I’m elected or not elected.”

School board reactions

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools released these statements from school board members following the results of the mediation:

Margaret Marshall (District 5)

“More than ever, our community needs all our elected bodies to work together as we simultaneously recover from the effects of the pandemic and remove barriers that prevent educational attainment. The forward motion needed to address these issues is only possible if we are working in conjunction with each other. I see better days ahead for our children and their families.”

Sean Strain (District 6)

“I am encouraged by the renewed commitment to partnership for our youth in Mecklenburg County. Public schools need to be funded sufficiently, and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners has stepped up to increase local funding more than 13% over the last four years when accounting for inflation – a period during which both the state and federal funding for CMS have increased substantially as well, despite falling enrollment. I am also encouraged by the renewed board of education focus on student outcomes and accountability. Our youth need us to be student-centered, mission-focused, data-informed and performance metric-driven. For every student. Every day.

Jennifer De La Jara (At-Large)

“We purposely invited an expert from the UNC School of Government to our Dec. 10 joint meeting to explain in plain language exactly what would happen if the county commissioners chose this destructive path. They chose this distraction anyway to the detriment of our community and to the detriment to our students. I do hope we can move forward with a collaborative spirit, but it would help if the political theater coming from the BOCC toned down.”

Lenora Shipp (At-Large)

“The children must come first. I am glad we are committed to this collaborative effort to do what is in the best interest of all children. My hope is that we will continue to develop relationships that will ensure our students graduate ready for the next step after high school so that they become productive citizens in a global society.”

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