N.C. school report cards show Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County’s per-pupil spending converging.
N.C. school report cards show Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County’s per-pupil spending converging.

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Dead last on state education money: Is CMS getting shortchanged?

December 02, 2015 11:00 AM

The Charlotte area is a hub of prosperity in North Carolina, but public schools here are operating on a relatively skimpy budget.

At least that’s what financial reports from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction indicate. On a per-pupil basis, no district got less state money for education than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Even with federal money and a relatively generous contribution from Mecklenburg County factored in, CMS rated 94th of 115 districts on per-pupil spending, the 2014-15 numbers show.

The per-pupil spending breakdowns were quietly posted in November. They’re also included in N.C. school report cards, which were updated this week.

And like all education data, they answer some questions and provide a starting point for others.

$8,381 per-pupil spending in CMS last year

$8,776 per-pupil state average

$17,377 highest per-pupil spending, in Hyde County

$7,138 lowest per-pupil spending, in Surry County

With state, federal and local money combined, per-pupil tallies ranged from $17,337 in Hyde County – a tiny coastal district with fewer students than most individual schools in CMS – to $7,138 in Surry County, a mid-size district due north of Charlotte.

CMS got $8,381 per student, compared with a state average of $8,776.

Digging into politics

While the biggest battles over the CMS budget tend to focus on the county, the numbers pin blame for the relatively stingy allotment on the state.

CMS was dead last on state money per pupil ($5,066), and the rest of the region didn’t fare much better. Iredell-Statesville was next-to-last, and Cabarrus, Mooresville, Union, Gaston and Lincoln also fell into the bottom 10.

The average state allotment was $5,638 per student, and Hyde County topped the list at $12,874.

The financial report also includes per-capita income. Mecklenburg is fourth – topped only by Orange, Chatham and Onslow counties – which means taxpayers in this area are providing a healthy share of the state’s income tax revenue.

$2,326 per-pupil local money for CMS last year

$2,133 per-pupil state average for local money

$5,618 highest local spending, in Chapel Hill

$741 lowest local spending, in Robeson County

But while state government is responsible for providing “a sound basic education,” some state lawmakers think counties with more wealth should be expected to do more to supplement those basics. Thus, the state provides additional money to poorer districts that might struggle to boost their education budgets through local property taxes.

So CMS officials and advocates turn to Mecklenburg County commissioners, who rank education as a top priority but aren’t eager to raise taxes or cut services.

“The County has NO responsibility to raise taxes to pay for what CMS didn’t get from the state,” said County Commissioner Bill James – who is, like the majority of state legislators, a Republican. “No government (either D or R) would be fiscally sound for long if that government agreed to pay for reductions/redirections ordered by other governments.”

Last year’s allotment from Mecklenburg County came to $2,326 per pupil, 28th among 116 districts. The state average was $2,133. Local allotments ranged from $5,618 per student in Chapel Hill-Carrboro to $741 in Robeson County.

What does it mean?

Terry Stoops, director of education for the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation, recently analyzed how the latest per-pupil spending numbers correspond to passing scores on state reading and math exams. He found no significant relationship.

“Money matters insofar as it is used to cultivate productive educational environments,” Stoops wrote. “Regrettably, some districts are more successful at doing so than others.”

The state doesn’t report per pupil spending at individual schools. If it did, I’d wager Stoops would have found a negative relationship – that is, schools with the lowest test scores would tend to show the highest per-pupil spending. That’s true in charter schools (because they’re essentially one-school districts, they get individual reports) and has been true in past years when CMS reported per-pupil spending by school.

Before anyone gets too cranked up about wasted money, consider that cancer specialists have higher bills and more deaths than, say, family practitioners. That’s not because they’re failing doctors; it’s because they get sicker patients.

Likewise, the schools whose students arrive ailing – from poverty, home turmoil, language barriers and the like – generally spend the most money and still trail the bottom on test scores. Educators haven’t figured out how to “cure” those challenges any more than doctors can cure cancer.

But most of us would say it’s worthwhile to keep trying, especially if you care about someone whose life is at stake.

Check it yourself

To check financial, academic, safety and staffing data on all public schools and districts, the 2014-15 school report cards are now posted at www.ncpublicschools.org/src/.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I have to say the SAS version that debuted last year can be a bit overwhelming. But it’s great if you want to compare two or more districts or schools on any given measure. For instance, I got a great visual representation of a trend I’d wondered about: The Wake County school district, which trailed CMS on per-pupil spending for years, is now virtually tied with CMS.

For the more detailed financial reports, go to the state’s statistical profile page, http://bit.ly/1Xyl40L, and select financial information under “State Summary.”

One caution: There’s a section that includes a per-pupil analysis of capital outlays – that is, money spent on building new schools and expanding or improving existing ones, which is a separate budget from operating money. That report shows CMS spending only $104 per pupil, compared with a state average of $406.

That seemed so low that I asked CMS officials to double-check, and they say the number is wrong.

Luellen Richard, executive director of financial services, says CMS accidentally left some items out of its report to the state. CMS is working to get a corrected report filed, which will bump up that number.

I’m guessing it still won’t be high – construction money dried up during the recession, while enrollment kept growing – but it will be important to have accurate numbers as CMS starts talking about another bond campaign early next year.

Per pupil spending

Sources of operating money for select school districts.

District

State money

State rank

Federal money

Federal rank

Local money

Local rank

Total spending

Total rank

Guilford County

$5,424.88

100

$1,109.78

55

$2,837.23

12

$9,371.89

50

Newton-Conover

$5,623.08

83

$980.43

81

$2,425.92

22

$9,029.43

64

State average

$5,638.39

$1,004.95

$2,132.71

$8,776.05

Kannapolis

$5,473.40

98

$1,227.18

44

$2,039.17

45

$8,739.75

81

Mooresville

$5,204.31

111

$596.63

112

$2,663.98

17

$8,464.92

88

Catawba County

$5,473.81

97

$1,006.48

75

$1,925.11

52

$8,405.40

92

CMS

$5,065.57

115

$990.14

79

$2,325.66

28

$8,381.37

94

Wake County

$5,302.89

108

$648.05

108

$2,411.95

23

$8,362.89

96

Hickory

$5,478.23

96

$1,084.14

59

$1,758.35

74

$8,320.72

99

Iredell-Statesville

$5,139.76

114

$736.39

104

$2,301.82

30

$8,177.97

105

Union County

$5,220.43

110

$603.86

111

$2,341.14

27

$8,165.43

106

Gaston County

$5,334.58

107

$1,026.21

72

$1,707.72

78

$8,068.51

109

Lincoln County

$5,335.10

106

$873.72

95

$1,765.15

73

$7,973.97

110

Cabarrus County

$5,190.59

112

$654.09

107

$2,067.75

43

$7,912.43

113

Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction

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