Jun 1, 2021 - News

Exclusive: The Black leaders who back CMS amid the budget drama

School Bus Rooftop

Photo: Getty Images

Dot Counts-Scoggins recoiled when she saw county commission chairman George Dunlap talk of throwing verbal rocks at the school board and superintendent Earnest Winston.

Counts-Scoggins, a civil rights icon and career educator, thought back to the Sept. 4, 1957 morning when she walked into the all-white Harding High through the crowd of jeering, spitting white kids and parents.

“I had real stones thrown at me that day,” she says in a new statement provided to Axios Charlotte. “Forgive me if I don’t care for seeing our elected officials talk about throwing verbal stones in a Zoom meeting.”

What’s happening: The county commission is set to vote Tuesday on a budget that would withhold $56 million from CMS — about 10% of its annual allotment — unless the school system presents a plan to close racial achievement gaps by 2024.

  • The process has been messy. Dunlap has repeatedly called Winston unqualified. A group of Black faith leaders say it’s time to “sound the alarm” about the failure rate of students of color, and the Black Political Caucus calls CMS “a house on fire.”
  • The CMS critics have received the bulk of the attention. Winston responded in a press conference last week that “anything that people say or think about me that does not get us closer to successfully educating every child in our school district doesn’t matter.”
  • On the eve of the vote, though, other Black leaders are speaking out for him.

“He is a conscientious, dedicated and well-prepared person for the challenges that are confronting our school system in this 21st century,” the Rev. Clifford Jones, who’s been at Friendship Missionary Baptist for nearly 40 years, tells me.

Why it matters: The success of students of color is vital to Charlotte’s future health. The debate over who’s responsible for today’s inequities is more complex than a soundbite. But CMS critics see the system as a main cause that should be held accountable now, while others like Counts-Scoggins see CMS as a product of larger issues that ought to be addressed community-wide.

  • Achievement gaps haven’t fallen out of the sky in the 21 months Winston’s had the job, they say, and blaming him and the current school board for decades of decisions made at the county and state level might be convenient, but it’s misguided.
  • And so is threatening a school system after a pandemic that’s only exacerbated the gaps, they say.

“It’s perfectly in bounds for the people of Mecklenburg County to want the school board and district to address inequities that they themselves acknowledge,” therapist, activist and former CMS student Justin Perry tells me. “But it’s disingenuous to lay all this at superintendent Winston’s feet.”

  • Says Counts-Scoggins: “I agree that those that receive funding need to be made accountable, but who should be accountable for the past 20 years? Who’s accountable for the 4,000 students who enter CMS classes while experiencing homelessness or housing instability? This is a community problem, this is a county problem, this is a problem that spans a generation.”

To understand today’s debate, it’s good to go back to another furious time around the government center.

Flashback: In Nov. 2010, protesters descended on a school board meeting chanting “No justice, no peace!” in hopes of preventing the board from closing Waddell High School and other schools in areas where mostly Black and brown children lived.

This was during the heart of the recession. That summer the county cut CMS’s budget, which meant CMS had to make cuts of its own. And in a painful move, it looked to close schools in a growing city.

The county commission chairperson at the time, Jennifer Roberts, had implored the system to delay the vote. So did another newly elected county commissioner, who had once served on the school board — George Dunlap.

Commissioner Bill James called it hypocritical to for the county commission to criticize CMS’s decision to close schools in a year when their own board had cut CMS’s budget.

  • “We did the exact same thing in the exact same areas,” he said then. “You could say that CMS got the idea from us.”

In some ways, we’re still dealing with the fallout. The executive summary from the 2011-12 CMS adopted budget reads like a siren now: “For the fourth consecutive year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools made drastic cuts in our operating budget. In all, we cut $47 million from the budget. These cuts follow several years of larger reductions and they will be felt by our students and their families.”

Consider this now: This year’s senior class was in kindergarten in October 2008 when the economic collapse walloped Charlotte, and now they’re graduating at the end of a pandemic. Nearly half of their K-12 education has been in years of cutbacks of some sort.

How that shapes their generation remains to be seen.

But five years ago, CMS had a 90% graduation rate, tops in the state. Last year it was below 85%, in the bottom half of the state.

For many parents and community members, the easiest organization to blame for that is the school system.

By the numbers: Families have fled CMS over the past decade, and it’s not just white flight.

  • Black enrollment has dropped from a peak of 58,888 in 2013-14 to 51,339 this year — a 13% drop.
  • White enrollment has fallen from 44,786 in 2011-12 to 35,094 today — 22% of all white students have left the system in the past decade.
  • Today 63% of Mecklenburg’s population is white, but only 26% of the public school system is.

Chart: Axios visuals. Data: CMS enrollment archives

Chart: Axios visuals. Data: CMS enrollment archives

Pressures are now on the school system from all sides.

Charter schools are growing in influence. The state legislature is expanding the vouchers program for private schools.

It amounts to a troublesome time for the traditional public education system that was the living room for democracy for much of the last quarter of the 20th century.

Dunlap sees the shifts and says the schools have to accept some responsibility.

“I look at it like a business,” Dunlap told me last week. “If you keep losing your market share every year. People don’t want to talk about this. They get mad. They say charter schools are siphoning off the money. … But there’s obviously something you’re not doing (as a school system). If you do a good job with the kids, the kids stay with CMS, and the money stays with CMS.”

CMS has a 2024 strategic plan already in place. It could use some refining, Perry and the CMS advocates say, but withholding money and tossing insults at it won’t improve the plan.

“That would be like me saying (to the county), ‘You guys have been talking about eradicating homelessness forever. And I see more and more of it. So you know what: Since my property tax pretty much tripled over the past few years, I’m going to withhold my funds until you show me a plan that I believe in.’ I couldn’t do that.

  • “I think it’s hypocritical to act as if they have their house in order enough to oversee another body’s house.”

Yes, but: The county says its job is to hold CMS accountable. And to some that means Winston.

Dunlap has mocked Winston’s work history: Winston was a newspaper reporter who became a teacher in the mid-2000s, and then moved up through the central office over the 2010s under a series of superintendents.

In radio and television interviews, and in an interview with me last week, Dunlap hasn’t backed down: “I would not have the cashier become the branch manager without some knowledge,” he told me. “I would not have the branch manager to be the CEO of the bank without some experience. Now, it’s not personal, but look at the experience of the superintendent.”

But the school board backs Winston. And so do many community leaders. After a tumultuous decade that saw six superintendents — two of whom were forced out amid controversy — they figure a little stability wouldn’t hurt.

“I’d love to see Earnest be superintendent for 20 years,” Board member Carol Sawyer tells me. “Because that’s the only way to build continuity of plans, to start something and see it through. … We cannot shiny-new-plan our way out of educational problems.”

The Rev. Jones of Friendship Missionary Baptist says Winston’s unconventional path matters less than his commitment. The superintendent has his own daughters enrolled in CMS, after all, and has no plans to move.

  • “This is not a stepping stone for superintendent Winston. This is his home,” Jones says. “His family is here. He has tenure with our city. This is not a pass through.”

Dot Counts-Scoggins is now 79 years old. She still gets called regularly to speak on panels about how much has changed since 1957. She’s been an advocate for children and public education since, and she worries that they’ll eventually be the ones to suffer from arguments of the past month.

For her, schools work best when everybody’s in.

“One individual doesn’t determine the success or failure of our children,” Counts-Scoggins said. “It is the responsibility of all of us.”


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Charlotte.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Charlotte stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Charlotte.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more