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Jennifer Watson Roberts is a former Charlotte mayor and former member of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. Read more of her opinion articles here.

I have been watching the current fight over funding between the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) with sadness, and an eerie sense of déjà vu.

 It reminds me of the reason I became a candidate for the Board of Commissioners back in 2004. A funding fight was going on, even then, and many of the reasons for each side’s position today were heard then as well.

When I ran for the BOCC in 2004, it was a Republican-led board, with five Republican commissioners and four Democrats. Tom Cox and Dan Ramirez were chair and vice-chair. The rhetoric I heard about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) funding was that there was too much overhead, the executive staff had salaries that were too high, and the district had too many failing schools.

The BOCC leadership wanted CMS to cut its overhead – the word that the commissioners used then was “bloat” – so they decided to keep funding flat at a time when the district was gaining about 3,000 students a year. The explanation was that this restriction in funding would force CMS to listen and comply with the county’s desire to cut executive salaries and be more efficient with its dollars, but still achieve better academic results. Then, if they were able to show improvement in test scores, the county might think about supporting them more substantially to reward this good behavior.

When commissioners passed the county budget that year, CMS received approximately $260 million in operating revenue — roughly the same amount it had in 2002 and 2003.  The words used by some of the Republican commissioners were similar to what we are hearing from the BOCC today, that by holding back funding, they would force CMS to improve.

I was the room parent for my daughter’s kindergarten class during one of the years when there was no budget increase from the county. She was at Smith Academy of International Languages, a CMS magnet. I spoke with teachers and administrators every day. I heard how some teachers were leaving the district and others were taking on weekend jobs to make ends meet. I saw the un-filled teacher positions.

We had a full-time parent volunteer running the school library for an entire year for our K-8 school — for no pay. I remember asking myself, where is the bloat they keep talking about? When I was elected to the county commission, we had to increase the CMS budget the next year by nearly $36 million to make up for lost resources. But it was still not enough for the challenges our district continues to face.

Today, I am hearing the same words that Commissioner Bill James uttered in 2002, 2003, 2004 and beyond.  I am paraphrasing here: CMS is not fulfilling its responsibility to educate all students (and close the racial achievement gap), so they do not deserve their full funding request.

 Sadly, the racial disparities have continued since the 1999 judicial decision that ended busing, and today, after the lost Covid year, these disparities are more obvious than ever.

The Reimagining America Project, which I co-chair with Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler, has been asking students, teachers, administrators and historians what can be done to improve achievement for students of color, who are now a majority of our public school students. In a series of interviews, project members heard some great advice and solutions.

It was also obvious that further reducing school funding would only make things worse. History has shown this to be true, and the fighting and political posturing have not helped. The uncertainty of contingent funds, or withheld funds, lead more teachers to flee the district, causing larger classes and ever more students to have inexperienced teachers who may not be teaching in the subjects that are their expertise.

Some of these suggestions require funding; others do not. But they are only a start, because we know that other factors — like access to healthcare, environmental racism and unhealthy neighborhoods, lack of economic mobility, and the digital divide – also contribute to making academic achievement more elusive for students of color.

The suggestions we heard included the following: 1) Make the subject matter more relevant to students of color, and teach them (and all students) more of their own history. 2) Make sure that schools address mental health issues, with more and better counselors. 3) Keep schools open longer in recognition of disparities in internet access, safe places to study, and even access to regular meals. Many students live in toxic environments and find school to be a place of refuge and support. 4) Celebrate diversity and ensure that students can bring their culture, their language, their gender identities, and their traditions to school with them, and not have to hide who they are out of fear of bullying and shaming from teachers and peers. 5) Work to match students with mentors, especially middle and high school students, to help them develop a living wage career path. 6) Ensure that every school has a nurse and a trained behavioral and mental health counselor. 7) Support teachers by providing training, benefits and decent salaries, and treat them like the professionals they are. 8) Stop targeting students of color with harsher disciplinary action than white students when they are late or disruptive. 9) Treat teachers, administrators, students and parents with dignity and respect. (It is telling that this was a recommendation).

There were more suggestions, and you can watch our two hearings on education to learn more at the Reimagining America YouTube Channel.

We have also held hearings on the racialization of poverty, criminal justice, and healthcare, knowing how all these issues are intersectional and that we must multi-solve if we are to make progress.

We know that in this short time our Reimagining America Project did not become an expert panel on educational achievement. But listening to the students who have been in the system talk about their needs was informative, and seemed to cut through the political and media rhetoric to get back to the basics of valuing our educators and our students, and giving them the resources, high expectations, and support they need to succeed. They will, after all, be the future leaders of our business world and our society, making sure that we halt climate change, find a cure for cancer, and save democracy as a system of government for our country and our world. And, not surprisingly, we did not hear a single person say that the way to improve is by providing less funding.

Jennifer Watson Roberts was elected mayor of Charlotte in 2015 and served one term. She had perviously served as chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.

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