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Mecklenburg County will withhold millions from CMS once budget is approved

County leaders voted in favor of keeping a $56 million hold on CMS funds as part of their budget. It comes after a recorded and contentious meeting between parties.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mecklenburg County leaders voted 6-2 in favor of restricting millions of dollars from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as part of their budget, once approved in June. 

County Manager Dena Diorio presented a budget earlier this month that withholds at least $56 million from the CMS budget until they are given a specific plan that addresses the performance disparities.

Wednesday's special meeting started early at 8a.m., but commissioners proved to be wide awake with passionate arguments on both sides of the issue. 

"Withholding money though is not the way to narrow the opportunity gap and neither is underfunding them," Commissioner Laura Meier said. 

"We have children who are failing," Commissioner Pat Cotham said moments later. "Their constitutional rights are being violated."

"They deserve somebody to stand up for them, we are accountable to the people, we need to stand up for them," Cotham continued. 

Commissioners Meier and Susan Rodgriguez-McDowell were the two commissioners who voted against keeping the restriction as part of the budget. 

Leaders in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Mecklenburg County remained at an impasse one day before the commission was scheduled to begin voting on the school district’s budget on Wednesday. 

“Today’s meeting resulted in no progress,” CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew said after a meeting behind closed doors between the two parties.

The leaders were at odds over the plan to address equity and achievement scores at low-performing schools. Many of the schools have minority-majority populations that were disproportionately impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

RELATED: Meck County commissioners split over proposal to hold $56M from next CMS budget

At a news conference Tuesday, following the meeting between the two boards, CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston doubled down on the district’s strategic plan that has been widely disseminated.

“We’ve been very transparent, we’ve been very clear that we have a strategic plan for the community to see,” Winston said. “Equity is one of the commitments that we’ve made in our strategic plan. Everything that we do in CMS, we do it with a lens of equity.”

WCNC Charlotte has obtained recorded audio of the Tuesday meeting between CMS and county officials.

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Winston conceded that the plan was released in 2018 and pre-dates the pandemic that crippled communities of color in particular. Winston said CMS leaders are actively working to update the plan.

“We are doing the work,” Winston said. “Does the work happen overnight? Absolutely not. But I’ll tell you this: we’re committed to the work and we’ve never been more committed to the work because we understand what is at stake with all of our students.”

RELATED: Charlotte NAACP calls for audit of CMS spending amid budget dispute

Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners Chairman George Dunlap said he needs to hear a full plan about how CMS leaders specifically intend to spend the money to address equity before he feels comfortable releasing the full budget.

“What we don’t want to continue to do is to fund a process or program that we have no idea as to what the results might be,” Dunlap said.

Winston again expressed concern that a decision to withhold money in the budget will have an impact on the classrooms. 

“Historically, when cuts have happened, we have done everything in our power to keep those cuts as far away from the classroom as possible,” Winston said. “We will make every effort to do that again but I can’t guarantee you that will happen.”

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Diorio said the money is largely being held from administrative roles. Winston said positions like assistant principals, and the staff who hire teachers are on the line.

The meeting was not in public and no reporters were allowed inside. 

However, it was recorded. Chair Dunlap told commissioners that CMS School Board Chair Elyse Dashew put a recorder on the table at the beginning of the meeting a told everyone she was recording it. 

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, WCNC Charlotte obtained the 45-minute recording that was at times contentious but ended in leaders on both sides talking in circles with no resolution. 

"My board's perspective is, they are not interested in continuing to fund a program that doesn't specify outcomes," Chair Dunlap could be heard saying during his opening remarks in the meeting. 

"This does not feel like a partnership situation, this feels like a hostage situation," Dashew could be heard responding at one point. 

Dunlap and County Manager Dena Diorio explained their reasoning as to why the board of commissioners wanted a measurable plan before releasing the funds, noting the county has put funds in a restricted contingency in years past, including in 2020, and the district didn't fight it. 

Dashew and Superintendent Earnest Winston fired back, saying the board has the right to decide when they want to fight restricted contingency and when they don't. Dashew admitted the district perhaps should've fought it in 2020, but with the ongoing pandemic, there were bigger issues to tackle. 

Dashew reiterated her stance that the board of county commissioners was not an oversight board and it was not within their right to place conditions on funding. 

"I'm not sure that this conference room is going to resolve anything more right now," Dashew could be heard saying towards the end of the meeting.  

The public back-and-forth has already created problems, Dashew said in the press conference after the meeting. 

“These public threats to withhold funding are making the already difficult task to hire and retain our qualified teachers and staff even more challenging,” Dashew said. 

Dashew said, if the commissioners withheld the money, they will initiate the process to recoup it.

“There are steps, very clear steps boards of education should take when there is a dispute about funding so we’ll follow those steps,” Dashew said.

Under state statute, the two boards could wind up in mediation or eventually before a judge or jury.

RELATED: New violence interrupters program looking to hire 6 community members in west Charlotte to help stop crime before it happens

Contact Tanya Mendis at tmendis@wcnc.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter. 

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