‘I will push back on that.’ Mecklenburg county manager defends withholding CMS funds

·3 min read

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio on Tuesday staunchly defended her recommendation to withhold millions of dollars in funding to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the next fiscal year.

Speaking at a testy commissioners meeting, Diorio insisted she heeded what elected officials had asked of her.

The budget maneuver won’t impact classrooms, she insisted during her budget presentation last week and again Tuesday during the county commissioners’ public policy session.

The county manager raised her voice just moments before the meeting abruptly adjourned — after Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell accused Diorio of blocking salaries for the CMS superintendent and his executive team.

“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 to budget allocations,’ ” Diorio said. “I did what you told me to do. So don’t turn now and tell me you’re shocked and appalled because I will push back on that all day long.

“I did exactly what you told me to do.”

Local Black clergy leaders gather outside Govt. Center on Monday, May 10, 2021 in Charlotte, N.C., in support a county proposal to withhold some school funding until progress is made Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, especially among Black youths.
Local Black clergy leaders gather outside Govt. Center on Monday, May 10, 2021 in Charlotte, N.C., in support a county proposal to withhold some school funding until progress is made Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, especially among Black youths.

The county’s plan

Under Diorio’s proposal, Mecklenburg would allocate about $531.9 million to CMS in the next fiscal year. That compares to $529.9 million in the current year, $519 million in the prior fiscal year, $469.4 million in 2019 and $433.7 million in 2018, according to the county’s recommended budget book.

Diorio’s recommendation for CMS calls for putting $56 million into restricted contingency, intended to close academic achievement gaps — and strengthen college readiness — for Black and brown students.

To access the restricted pot of money, CMS must produce a strategic plan that outlines “quantifiable goal, specific targets and defined timeframes” for improving test scores and limiting racial disparities, according to Mecklenburg’s budget book.

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio wants to withhold funding to CMS to boost academic performance for Black and brown students.
Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio wants to withhold funding to CMS to boost academic performance for Black and brown students.

The funding mechanism, Diorio said, will help commissioners hold the school district accountable for effectively using taxpayer dollars. Local Black clergy and two county commissioners on Monday applauded the county’s effort as they cited failing test scores and poor reading performance.

“Are we getting our money’s worth as taxpayers in this county?” Commissioner Vilma Leake asked Tuesday. “I have a real concern about not wanting people to hold people accountable for a job.”

’Not acting as true partners’ to CMS

But Rodriguez-McDowell said this strategy would only “set our children back further.”

“We are not acting as true partners to solve a problem,” Rodriguez-McDowell said, invoking strained communications between school board and county leaders. “Instead, we have created a scapegoat. This plan is punitive in nature.”

George Dunlap, chairman of the county commissioners, earlier in the meeting said he refused to argue with CMS. Mecklenburg cannot tell CMS how to use its budget appropriation, but the county can dictate how much the school system gets, Dunlap said.

“We are right-sizing the budget...” Dunlap said. “What we’re doing is we’re using the tools that we have available to us...We what we’re saying is: If you meet these criteria, we’re giving you additional dollars to do it. That’s our right.”

Commissioner Elaine Powell said she was concerned the local governing bodies were becoming divided over education funding.

“This is a huge problem for our community, and it cannot continue,” Powell said of under-performing schools. “I just hope that we can all work together to move forward — to problem-solve.”

In a now-deleted tweet, CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston last week slammed Mecklenburg. He said students “deserve better,” especially amid new “higher hurdles” wrought by the pandemic.

County commissioners will cast straw votes on the budget later this month, before adopting it on June 1.

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