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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- This year s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools payroll is a snapshot of a district rebounding from the recession, with increases in total salaries, bonus payments and the number of teachers and highly paid administrators.

The payroll shows a district still in transition, as Superintendent Heath Morrison goes into his first budget year and continues shaping his leadership team. Over the spring and summer, Morrison and the school board will continue crafting a strategic plan for CMS, with dozens of volunteers serving on advisory boards weighing in.

Morrison said Thursday he ll shape his administration based on the most effective way to support schools.

The schools have to be the centerpiece, he said.

The Observer publishes salaries from CMS and other public bodies during the spring budget season to provide information on how tax money is spent. By law, those salaries are public record.

CMS, which has 18,665 people on the payroll and $705.9 million in salaries and bonuses listed, is by far the largest public employer in the Charlotte region, and one of the largest overall employers in North Carolina. Salaries and benefits account for the bulk of the district s $1.2 billion operating budget.

While budget documents reflect positions, regardless of whether they re filled, the salary database tallies actual employees. This year s listing of 16,228 full-time employees, 1,140 part-timers and 1,297 temporary staff is an increase of 314 employees over spring of 2012. The number of teachers is up by 154.

Total compensation is up by just over $26 million. That reflects 3 percent across-the-board raises paid by the state and Mecklenburg County, the first raises most CMS staff got after three years of a state freeze. Educators in high-poverty schools also got more and larger bonuses, fueled partly by an infusion of private cash from Project LIFT.

With $55 million in donations pledged over the next five years to improve education at nine west Charlotte schools, Project LIFT is exploring tactics that may lead to broader change.

But LIFT s staffing strategy, like that of CMS, remains in the trial stage. We re a big enough district that there doesn t have to be a strategy. There can be multiple strategies, Morrison said.

Top ranks growing

When Morrison became superintendent July 1, he took over an organization that had lost several top administrators during a year of transition. He has hired several new chiefs, most at salaries similar to their predecessors. He has also added some highly paid posts, including a deputy superintendent at $190,000, a chief communications officer at $160,000 and a chief of staff at $130,000.

The payroll shows 93 people with salaries and bonuses topping $100,000, up from 79 last spring. That includes 41 principals, one more than last year, and 52 other administrators, 13 more than last year.

Creation of the Project LIFT zone, which serves the nine West Charlotte schools, has added to the administrative ranks. Denise Watts, who leads that zone, reports to both CMS and the private donor board, with her $154,400 salary paid by private money. The LIFT zone has nine staffers, including two executive directors, compared with six employees at each of the other CMS zones, which serve 17 to 42 schools.

Watts notes that private money and federal Title I money for high-poverty schools pays for the extra administrative staff, which is charged with intensive data monitoring and rapid support for schools. The staff also works with partner groups, builds family engagement and reports back to donors.

All of that is not on the back of CMS, she said.

As he completes his first year, Morrison says he s still working on a structure for leadership and support. For instance, he has yet to hire a chief academic officer, after Ann Clark was promoted from that job to deputy superintendent in July. Morrison said that is crucial to the district s success.

While some districts pay better than CMS, Morrison said, the pay scale for top administrators has proven adequate to attract top talent.

Rewarding teachers

CMS paid almost $3.6 million in bonuses to 1,056 people in the past year, according to the latest summary. Virtually all of them worked in high-poverty schools with special programs offering rewards to recruit strong educators and reward student progress.

Both the number and the size of bonuses grew. Last year 795 people got bonuses, ranging from $609 to $17,300, with only three topping $15,000. This year nine people got $15,000 or more, and the total bonus payout rose by more than $800,000.

Bonuses come from a mix of sources, including the strategic staffing program created by former Superintendent Peter Gorman, the federal/state Race to the Top grant and a federal pilot known as TIF-LEAP that is coming to an end.

The biggest bonuses this year went to teachers in Project LIFT schools, which offered recruitment and retention bonuses paid with private donations. For instance, West Charlotte High Principal John Wall, who was hired from Wake County, recruited a math teacher he had worked with there. She had shown strong results getting students to master algebra, an essential skill for completing high school, according to Watts. Combining money from Project LIFT and strategic staffing, she got $19,000 for coming to CMS, bumping her compensation from $39,619 to $58,619.

An elementary school teacher at Druid Hills Academy (Pre-K-8), another LIFT school, collected $17,500 in bonus money from Project LIFT, strategic staffing and TIF-LEAP.

Watts said this year s bonuses have succeeded in getting and keeping teachers for Project LIFT schools, but the real measure of success will be whether those teachers produce significant gains for their students. Test scores won t be available until October this year. Watts said LIFT will analyze results to track which incentives yield the most benefit for students.

Looking ahead

The challenge with CMS bonus programs is that most depend on money that runs out after a few years.

Morrison says he wants to find a sustainable way to make teaching a more rewarding profession, one that doesn t require an infusion of special money. Project LIFT is trying an opportunity culture approach that Morrison sees as promising.

By consolidating existing jobs, four LIFT schools have posted about two dozen new jobs that give highly effective teachers a chance to reach more students and guide their colleagues, using a combination of technology and mentoring. Watts said she has received more than 700 applications for those jobs, which add $4,700 to $23,000 to the teachers base pay. Those raises will not depend on the donors money, which runs out in 2017.

Morrison says that approach doing new things with existing money is one he ll look to as the district makes its long-term plans. Whether it s reshaping administration or creating new academic programs that expand student options, he said, we re going to have to challenge ourselves: How do we do these concepts without necessarily extra money being available?

However, Morrison has also presented a 2013-14 budget plan that asks county commissioners for a $28.5 million increase, including almost $20 million for new initiatives such as expanded school technology, new magnets and additional reading programs for young students.

The budget outlines some of the ways Morrison hopes to change staffing to reshape the district. He s seeking almost $880,000 from the county to add 12 new jobs for school partnerships and volunteers, and almost $200,000 for two staffers to improve data analysis and integrity.

The school board will hold a public hearing on the budget proposal Tuesday, before voting on a request to take to county commissioners in May.

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