‘All of us must do better’: Black church leaders back county plan to withhold CMS funds

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Local Black clergy leaders said Monday they support a county proposal to withhold some school funding until Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools comes up with a plan to improve academic performance, especially among Black students.

“Almighty God … we ask your favor, guidance and wisdom to inspire our school board, our school system, our county and city governments and the community at large, as all of us must do better for our children,” the Rev. Jordan Boyd prayed. “Continue to bless our collective efforts to advocate for all children, but especially our Black babies.”

Community members and clergy from the African-American Faith Alliance for Educational Advancement gathered in front of uptown’s Government Center to applaud the county’s proposed $1.99 billion budget, which will withhold $56 million in restricted contingency funding from the school district.

Religious and county leaders cited failing test scores and expressed concern at poor reading performance among the district’s Black students.

“We understand the enormous challenge to education brought on by the pandemic. However, the failure rate of CMS students pre-existed the pandemic,“ said the Rev. Monty Witherspoon, who ran unsuccessfully for CMS school board in 2019. “We understand that all children can learn regardless of race, class or socioeconomic status.

“This is why we support the Board of County Commissioners and the county manager urging the leadership of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to produce a plan with measurable objectives that will reverse the current failure rate of African American students.”

One-quarter of all CMS schools are low-performing, County Budget Director Adrian Cox said last week. That compares to 15% in Wake County. And there are big reading gaps between white CMS students and Black and Hispanic students

A spokesman for CMS declined to comment.

The district approved its budget last month, which requests $551 million from the county — up $26.5 million from what it initially received last year. CMS historically gets one-third of its funding from the county, while the bulk of the rest of the funding comes from the state, which is restricted to certain purposes. One-time federal COVID relief funds are also available to CMS starting this year.

The county’s budget recommendations came after a CMS presentation last week in which commissioners asked school district officials what they were doing to improve the academic performance of Black and brown students, especially. CMS officials said there wasn’t a specific plan in place yet.

County Manager Dena Diorio presented her budget recommendations to the commissioners Thursday. She said the withheld funds, which account for 11% of the county’s budget allotment for CMS, could be unlocked when CMS produces a plan for improving school achievement scores and college readiness. Diorio told reporters it would allow the county to hold CMS accountable.

But CMS board chair Elyse Dashew pushed back against that idea at last week’s presentation to the county commissioners.

“I want to be clear that you’re not an oversight board,” Dashew said. “We hold our staff accountable and the voters hold us accountable, the same voters that voted for you all and hold you accountable.”

‘Not about taking money’

County commissioners Vilma Leake and Mark Jerrell attended Monday’s gathering and spoke publicly in support of withholding the funds until there’s a strategic plan in place.

“It’s not about taking money from the school system,” Leake said. “It’s about making sure that we hold you accountable for why we elected you to educate our children.”

Leake also proposed a “school swap,” requesting that students from Providence High School, which is majority white, be sent to West Charlotte High School, which is majority Black, for one month.

“See how that works,” she said. “That’s the challenge I have for them.”

Under Diorio’s recommendations, the district overall would still receive $6.1 million more than it got last year.

But due to a state mandate, CMS cannot operate under the assumption that it will later receive the withheld money. North Carolina school districts can not budget on a deficit.

For the previous school year, the county withheld $11 million from the district until it paid its hourly staff a $15 minimum wage — the money was later released, but because of the state rule, about 150 jobs still were eliminated.

“The money keeps increasing, and the academic performance keeps decreasing,” clergy alliance board Chairman the Rev. Dennis Williams said. “More money and doing the same is not going to get us where we need to go.”

Some protesters objected to the plan for the county to withhold school funding.
Some protesters objected to the plan for the county to withhold school funding.

A couple of protesters at the event held signs that voiced opposition to the proposed funding cut. Deirdre Jonese Austin, a 2015 Independence High School graduate and daughter of a CMS teacher, said withholding money from the school district is not the solution to improving Black student performance.

“All of the students are already behind, even more than they were behind before,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is going to trickle down and end up affecting the students.”

CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston expressed his disappointment in the proposed budget via Twitter on Thursday.

“To say I understand the county’s position is to mischaracterize my sentiment,” Winston wrote in a now-deleted tweet. “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.”

County Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell said Monday in an interview with the Charlotte Observer that she doesn’t support the funding move.

“I really do not think this is a good idea,” she said. “I think we should be working together on behalf of the students. In my opinion, this is not the way to help the children.”

Mecklenburg County residents can provide feedback about the budget during a public hearing Wednesday. Sign up to speak online at Mecknc.seamlessdocs.com/f/clerk or call 980-314-2914 by 5 p.m. Tuesday. Commissioners will cast straw votes on the budget May 26-27, before adopting it on June 1. It would take effect on July 1.

The African-American Faith Alliance for Educational Advancement plans to host another rally and vigil May 29 at Marshall Park regarding student performance.

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