Charlotte schools consider cutting 1,200

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is now looking at cutting more than 1,200 jobs - 500 more than the superintendent outlined two weeks ago - and some board members say across-the-board pay cuts may be needed as well.

At a special meeting Thursday, the school board heard about an ever-worsening financial picture. Superintendent Peter Gorman said the current worst-case scenario would leave CMS $85 million to $100 million short of what it needs to keep services steady while opening six schools in August.

"There are going to be reductions beyond what we've talked about that are going to hurt big time," board member Tom Tate said.

Teachers, teacher assistants, assistant principals, central-office staff and school security guards are among the categories that could face cuts. In the past, Gorman has avoided layoffs by eliminating vacant or frozen jobs. But he said Thursday there aren't nearly enough vacant jobs to cover the next round of likely cuts, which would take place in the summer.

Board member Trent Merchant said even a 1,200-job reduction in the district's 19,000-member work force won't be enough if county and state money come up as short as some officials are projecting. He said cutting pay or giving people furloughs, or unpaid days off, would be better than putting more people out of work.

"There are not a whole lot of places for these folks to go," Merchant said. "If we can retain as much talent as possible while sharing the pain across the board, I'd like to see us do that."

There was no vote, but no one disagreed. Board member Joe White and Gorman said Merchant is on the right track. "We're at a point now where Trent's words ring true," Gorman said.

Mary McCray, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, said she was dismayed by talk of pay cuts. Teachers already struggle to make 10 months' pay cover a year of expenses, she said. But she supports the effort to protect jobs.

"There are no jobs out there," she said. "You're caught between a rock and a hard place."

All 2009-10 budget talks are in the early stages. Gorman will present a budget plan to the school board March 10, and county commissioners and state legislators will ultimately decide how much the school system gets.

Two weeks ago, Gorman outlined cuts that included eliminating more than 700 jobs, more than 350 of them teachers. That could mean larger class sizes. He's been talking with school board members in small groups since then to gauge reactions.

He said he got a clear message that board members want to preserve teachers' jobs, and he had come up with a plan to keep those jobs by eliminating teacher assistants and a county-funded faculty bonus program based on test scores. Gorman said board members also were unwilling to cut middle-school sports, which would save $1.2 million.

The original plan was based on a 5 percent cut in county money. This week County Manager Harry Jones asked Gorman to present a plan for a 10 percent cut, with no additional money to cover inflation and new schools. If the deeper cut happens, teacher jobs could be back on the block.

Members discussed relatively small items such as middle-school sports and CMS-TV, but Merchant said the only place to get tens of millions in savings is from salaries.

"We're arguing over the parsley and we need to look at the steak," he said.

Also Thursday, the board agreed to keep using poverty levels, as measured by eligibility for federal lunch subsidies, to award extra teachers and supplies to schools with disadvantaged students. Board member Kaye McGarry objected, saying those numbers "have no integrity" and promote a culture equating poverty with failure.

A consultant who has spent several months studying CMS said it would be possible to craft a formula for middle and high schools based partly on the number of students who arrive performing below grade level. But that would consume staff time and confuse the public while making little difference in how the money is spent, said Jonathan Travers, director of the nonprofit Education Resource Strategies.

Seven board members agreed to stick with the poverty-based formula, at least for 2009-10.