Fight brews over Wake money

The commissioners will hear demands for an increase from the school board.

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comJanuary 3, 2012 

  • At least two other fiscal matters will link the county Board of Commissioners and the Wake County Board of Education this year. One is the generally agreed-upon need for a bond issue to fund new school construction. The other is the extra $15 million in the school system's "rainy day" pot that the schools would have to give back to the county under usual practices.

    School officials have said the system put extra money in its rainy day fund to offset the loss of one-time federal funding that helped prevent teacher layoffs last year.

    Tony Tata, the Wake schools superintendent, said the system'sfinancial team has done an excellent job of trying to create a "soft landing" from the loss of the federal funds.

    "They are supposed to give (surplus) money back to the county," Bryan said. "But I don't see us asking for that money back."

Wake County's Board of Commissioners will begin what could be a contentious year today, with its penny-conscious Republican leadership facing serious pressure for more funding from the new, Democrat-led school board.

In appointments on today's agenda, Chairman Paul Coble has put himself and two other Republicans on the committee that governs finance and education, signaling a rocky road for any attempt to increase local contributions.

Commissioner Joe Bryan, nominated for a repeat term as chairman of budget, finance and education, said on Monday that it's too early to make decisions on funding schools. But he said that the GOP majority on the seven-member board will likely stick with its pay-as-you-go philosophy of maintaining services based on the lowered revenue streams of recession years.

"We'll have our commissioners' retreat on Jan. 27, where we'll set forth our goals for the year," Bryan said. "Once again, I do see the budget being a major challenge for us. The economy has not come roaring back."

Voters gave Democrats control of the school board in the fall elections after two years of Republicans holding a one-vote majority. Keith Sutton, a Democrat and the school board's vice chairman, says it's now past time to increase the county's contribution to the school system.

Commissioners have allocated roughly $314 million to the 146,000-student system for each of the past three years despite increased enrollment of more than 7,000 students during that period.

The county provides 25 percent of the school system's $1.2 billion operating budget.

"You can't expect to provide the same quality of services of education while continuing to do more with the same," Sutton said. "I don't even see it as an argument. I just think it's clear.

"The numbers are there, and they speak for themselves. It's a matter of finding the political will."

Bryan concedes that the schools have growing needs, but he notes that's also true for the sheriff's operation, emergency medical services and human services. Financial planners under the leadership of County Manager David Cooke are projecting continued slow revenue growth for the fiscal year that begins July 1, raising the question of where additional money for the schools would originate.

In a dry comment about finding new revenue, Bryan said, "I'm confident that the commissioners would be ecstatic about the school board leading their own campaign about a sales tax increase."

Sutton countered that the need for more funding should be a community priority, not the subject of a struggle between governing bodies. The Board of Commissioners typically has the last say on spending, unless the school board appeals to the court system.

"At some point, we've got to be responsible leaders and make sure that our spending keeps pace with the growth," Sutton said. "At some point, we've got to move forward. I'm hopeful that we'll have support from all of our colleagues on that, not just the Democrats."

Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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