Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Budget cuts: Wild ride ahead

It looks like we're going to get three extra months of budget uproar, now that Superintendent Peter Gorman says he's going to release a rough draft of a 2011-12 budget plan for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on Tuesday. He'll release his suggestions for making about $100 million in cuts and ask the board to vote on some time-sensitive biggies on Jan. 25.

It doesn't take a Ouija board to predict that hundreds of jobs will be on the block. Cutbacks in busing, Bright Beginnings prekindergarten and additional teachers to help children of poverty are likely to be on the vote-in-January list, with additional layoffs looming into spring and summer.

Another easy prediction: Critics will accuse Gorman and the board of trying to scare people into lobbying state legislators and county commissioners for more money. There's no doubt that the prospect of firing teachers and cutting popular programs arouses people more than general budget forecasts, no matter how dire. And of course CMS leaders want support for the most money they can get in a dismal year.

But they also make a pretty convincing case for early decisions. Remember last May, when the school board voted to yank neighborhood busing for thousands of magnet students? Families were understandably outraged that CMS was reneging on promises made during the  January application period.

Early decisions are creating a clash with board Chair Eric Davis's vow to get extensive public engagement. With votes looming in less than three weeks, there won't be time for a lot of public forums and special meetings on some items, Gorman says. However, he noted that he's gotten an anonymous donation to cover the cost (about $8,000) of taping, airing and webstreaming four special budget meetings later in the year.

The rush also poses challenges in getting details posted in advance. Democracy is best served when board members, reporters and interested members of the public all have access to complicated material and proposals before a meeting begins. If people watch board members debating mystery handouts, they can't really follow the discussion.

CMS officials aren't arguing in theory, but they say advance release isn't realistic when so much budget information is being cranked out so quickly.

So ... expect Tuesday's agenda and some supporting material, including a breakdown of last year's per-pupil spending at each school, to be posted here tomorrow. But documents connected with Gorman's budget-cutting plans won't be available until the meeting starts, he says. Spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry says she's working on getting them posted online at the same agenda link as quickly as possible, so anyone who's following from home or brings a laptop to the meeting can read along.

P.S. I'm happy to report that Eric Frazier is officially joining me in education coverage, at least for the duration of the budget crisis. He'll be joining me on this blog as well.


Anonymous said...

Glad to see you'll be getting some help. As I think you know, this administration talks about "transparency" but really doesn't mean it. We need a little more digging than one person can do.

therestofthestory said...

Ann, I thought I'd let you know that LaTarzja never got back to me on my questions. But I stuck with it and finally got what I wanted. I am still sifting through the last 4 years of per pupil spending I have collected. Let me know if you have any questions.

therestofthestory said...

And also Ann, there is a new piece of data CMS has developed for all schools. It is called ROI or return on investment (per pupil dollars). It is a measurement of student growth compared to $ per pupil spent at the school. So none the less, it is an interesting comparison when you stack all the schools up with this factor.

Also, you will notice, there are still quite a few schools with less than 50% capacity that need to be addressed yet.

Anonymous said...

I BEG CMS to just check w2's of the thousands of liars that are getting free lunches!How hard is it to ask for a W2 before handing out free food? Makes me nuts watching parents drive away in their BMW after dropping off their free lunch paperwork!
Our kids rented their textbooks in VaBch..why can't that be done here?
These are two easy ways to savemoney and jobs in CMS.PLEASE consider both options!

Ann Doss Helms said...

Thanks, restofstory. I've seen the return on investment numbers (or as I like to call it, the "bang for your buck" numbers). They rolled those out when they first started talking about closings. I agree that they're interesting, and only part of the picture.