RALEIGH — Wake County superintendent Del Burns hung on to his job Tuesday, but the end of a long, contentious school board meeting brought no guarantee he'd remain until his announced resignation date of June 30.
However long he stays, he will have to contend with an austere budget that could mean layoffs, cuts in services and more expensive school lunches.
At noon, board members adjourned a second closed-door meeting on Burns' fate without taking action in response to his pointed public criticisms of the changes they want to bring to the 140,000-student system.
"We have not reached a final conclusion on it yet," said Debra Goldman, vice chairwoman of the board.
Burns referred questions about possible further action to the board.
"I plan on working through June 30 and doing what I do every day, which is work for the benefit of the children of Wake County," Burns, superintendent since 2006, said during a break. "That's what I've done for the past 30 years."
Planning for a lean year
Still in charge of day-to-day operations for North Carolina's largest school district, at least for the short term, Burns presented a $1.2 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, with the assumption of a $313 million contribution from the county.
The document assumes there will be no overall spending increases over the current fiscal year and makes significant cuts to deal with increased costs and decreased revenue. Adjustments range from employee layoffs to an increase in the price of student meals and lower thermometer settings in winter and higher ones in spring and summer. Overall, Wake will be spending $100 less per pupil than in the 2008-09 school year and $63 less than it is now.
"We have been facing some serious shortfalls in terms of revenue," Burns said, noting that the system anticipates student-body growth of about 3,800 for the coming year.
To balance the budget given a funding shortfall of $21 million, staff recommended laying off 83 full-time employees, cutting 23.5 vacant positions and making other slashes to contract employment and services to schools. David Neter, the district's chief financial officer, warned that the economy isn't improving and that board members should expect more budget cuts for 2011-12.
"We know that next year there will be the additional cost of opening four new schools," Neter said.
School meal prices are slated to go up for the first time in years. Breakfast is going up 20 cents in elementary school and 25 cents in middle and high schools. Lunch is going up 25 cents across the board. School thermometers will be set to save money.
"Our facilities will get just a bit cooler in the winter and a bit warmer in the summer," Neter said.
And the school board itself will have to give up some national workshops and conferences as part of a proposed reduction of about $125,000.
The proposed budget assumes that county and state appropriations will remain the same, but that's not necessarily the case, Neter said. Any changes in state funding would not be known until after the system has to report its budget to the county commissioners for approval, he said.
The budget proposal includes some cuts to Project Enlightenment, which provides services to children from birth through kindergarten, Neter said. Parents and preschool directors are lobbying the system not to cut the popular intervention program.
Burns said that the staff has made no projections on the costs of any of the changes proposed by the new board.
"Some of the items that we want to do aren't necessarily budget-specific at this time," said John Tedesco, a member of the school board's ruling majority. "You have to be concerned if you come in to office and inherit a $20 million shortfall."
Burns has had a contentious relationship with the new majority on the nine-member board and on Feb. 16 announced his resignation. He said that he could no longer in good conscience work with a board that is proposing major changes, particularly in the area of systemwide economic diversity.
In a succession of interviews, he accused some members of engaging in political partisanship and made other statements that led to closed hearings on Feb. 23 and Tuesday to discuss different scenarios for his departure.
When asked Tuesday morning whether Burns was still superintendent, school board Chairman Ron Margiotta only smiled and motioned at Burns, who was occupying his customary seat.
Board attorney Ann Majestic said that nothing during the closed meetings changed Burns' situation. However, some board members said no final decision has been made.
Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.
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