Wake classes may get hot, tight

Money for utilities, teachers is scarce

Staff WriterMarch 6, 2009 

  • Here are some cuts that Wake County school leaders are looking at making in the new budget proposal:

    * Adjust building temperature by one degree during school hours.

    * Raise by 60 percent the amount that community groups pay to reimburse Wake for utility costs when they rent school facilities.

    * Adjust building temperatures for after-school activities rather than leaving them as in school hours.

    * Eliminate use of Richard Milburn High School and other community centers for long-term suspended students in favor of offering them online courses.

    * Buy fewer school buses.

    Go to www.wcpss.net/budget/2009-10-spb/ to view the budget proposal.

— Life could get a lot worse for Wake County students, teachers and school employees this fall if the school superintendent's budget is approved.

Schools could get hotter in summer and cooler in winter as thermostats are set to save energy. Teachers may be unable to brew coffee from a personal pot to stay warm or turn on a personal fan to keep cool. Classes will get larger as money for new teaching positions is slashed, and fewer courses may be offered.

This scenario is on top of the specter of layoffs. Wake school leaders say they're envisioning all these measures to balance the budget during this recession.

"We're almost spellbound by what we have to do," said Rosa Gill, chairwoman of the school board. "We know we're going to impact teaching and learning. But we have no choice."

School board members met Thursday to go over the potential effects of a $1.2 billion budget for the coming fiscal year that Superintendent Del Burns introduced earlier this week. Burns said the school system staff had developed an austere budget in recognition of state and county budget gaps. This time, he said, they couldn't shield teachers and classrooms.

Burns wants $316.9 million from the county, slightly more than the $316.2 million commissioners approved in June.

But the Wake superintendent said he's asking for only enough money from the county to keep up with state-mandated salary and benefit increases and for expected growth in utility costs. He said he is not asking for money to keep up with inflation and the expected cost of 2,300 additional students.

As a result, Burns said his staff had to make tradeoffs throughout the budget to keep costs down.

Willing to shiver, sweat

For instance, the proposed budget includes just half the projected increase in utility costs, with administrators eyeing cost-cutting measures to close this part of the budget gap. As a result, school employees may no longer be able to plug in personal appliances, such as coffee pots and refrigerators.

Board members asked for consideration to be given at older schools where teachers may use fans and heaters.

"Being the utility police will be no fun," Burns said. "But we have to start."

Jennifer Lanane, president of the Wake chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, said her group's nearly 5,000 members are willing to give up these amenities if it will save money that could reduce the need for layoffs.

Plans also call for changing the temperatures in schools -- higher thermostat settings in during warm weather; lower ones in winter.

Teachers and students will also feel the heat from the possibility of fewer locally budgeted teaching positions. Burns said it will likely lead to increased class sizes and cause high schools not to offer some courses that have low student interest.

Vicki Nizen, a southern Wake parent who lives near Wake Technical Community College, said she recognizes the need for budget cuts but worries about its impact on the schools her children attend.

"Everybody has to make some sacrifices right now," said Nizen, PTA president of Vance Elementary School. "Obviously, I'm not thrilled with larger class sizes."

No additional teachers

Deeper state funding cuts for education may worsen Wake's situation, Burns said. The state pays for most of Wake's teaching positions.

Burns said that the district's rainy day fund won't be large enough to provide additional teachers at schools. He said the practice of principals breaking up oversized classes after the school year starts may go from being the exception to the rule.

"We'll find a very difficult picture going forward," Burns said.

On top of all this gloomy news, Burns previously warned that the district may not be able to rehire some of the 1,496 employees whose contracts expire June 30. Burns has also said that layoffs of other school employees may be necessary if the state cuts funding by more than 5 percent.

In a gesture that will save $3,220, school board members unanimously agreed Thursday to reject any pay raise this year. The staff had budgeted a 2 percent pay raise for board members to match a projected state raise for teachers.

"It's more the gesture than the actual savings," said school board member Patti Head.

Board members are paid $14,838 a year. The board chair gets $18,141 annually. The board will next review the budget Wednesday.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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