Wake schools seek $8.3M boost to reduce class sizes, train teachers, expand magnets

khui@newsobserver.comMarch 5, 2013 

  • Changing school schedules

    Wake County school transportation officials said Tuesday they need to change the bell schedules for 15 schools this fall to improve transportation efficiency.

    Bob Snidemiller, Wake’s senior director of transportation, said 10 schools would only see shifts of 20 minutes or less for the 2013-14 school year. Five schools – Apex Elementary, Davis Drive Middle, Green Elementary, Lufkin Middle and Vandora Springs Elementary – would shift by 30 or more minutes.

    The board will vote on the changes on March 19. Also by then, Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore said she’ll tell board members whether any schools need to add more time to their day to meet the new state requirement for 25 more hours a year of class time.

    Also Tuesday, Wake’s School Health Advisory Council presented a report that included recommendations such as increasing the number of school nurses and banning the sale of unhealthy foods at school fundraisers.

    School board members did not take action Tuesday on the recommendations.

— Presenting what he called a “conservative” budget, interim Wake County Schools Superintendent Stephen Gainey said Tuesday he needs $8.3 million more from the county Board of Commissioners for efforts such as reducing class sizes, training teachers and expanding the magnet program.

Gainey said his $1.3 billion budget proposal for the 2013-14 fiscal year makes incremental steps to improve education while avoiding layoffs of any of Wake’s 18,000 employees. But he also warned it includes using up nearly all of the district’s $32.7 million rainy day fund to balance the budget.

“We need to be very conservative knowing we’re in a better place than we were a few years ago but we’re not at the heyday of the mid-2000s,” said David Neter, the school system’s chief business officer.

Neter said using $28.7 million from the undesignated fund balance is “not a good long-term solution.” But he said Wake is in a “survival-like mode” and that the extensive use of the rainy day fund will help avoid cuts that lead to layoffs.

As in the prior two years, Neter said the school board will be asked to waive its own policies to not return $13 million in the rainy day fund to the county. Some commissioners have been critical of the district having such a large rainy day fund, but school officials say they’ve been fiscally responsible by saving so much money.

School officials also are bracing for the potential loss of as much as $11 million in programs targeting special education and low-income students. That could happen if President Barack Obama and congressional leaders don’t work out a budget deal that rescinds $85 billion in automatic federal budget cuts.

The school board will review Gainey’s budget proposal before deciding whether to make any changes before presenting it to the Wake Board of Commissioners, who must decide how much to provide in local dollars.

The $326.6 million that Gainey wants from the county would represent 25 percent of the district’s operating budget. The state remains the system’s biggest banker, providing 60 percent of the its funding.

The request comes as Wake, the state’s largest district, with 150,000 students, is projected to grow by 3,000 students this fall.

And the request comes as the county’s revenue picture is improving. Last month, county staff told commissioners that they will have a projected $18.4 million in extra revenue.

But the school system’s ability to get the requested $8.3 million boost – which would be the largest increase from the county in several years – could be hampered by the acrimony between the school board and commissioners. The bodies have feuded over a variety of issues, the most recent being the county’s request for changes in state law that would alter the means of electing school board members and would give commissioners ownership of schools.

County Commissioner Tony Gurley’s immediate response to the proposed increase was that it was in line with the county’s expectations for increased revenue in the coming year.

“That’s not an unreasonable request,” said Gurley, reached by phone. However, Gurley said, he does expect commissioners and the school board to have a discussion about the balance in its reserve fund.

Commissioner Betty Lou Ward also said the request was not too high, “considering the fact that we are going to have more money this year. And they’ve had more students come in the past few years.”

“I hope that we’ll be able to meet that budget and do what’s right for the schools,” she said.

Last year, commissioners gave the school system a $3.9 million increase, less than half the $8.8 million bump that was requested. But it still represented the first increase after four years of relatively flat funding as commissioners strove not to raise property taxes during the weak economy.

This year, the school system will face off against county agencies that are trying to make up for the funding cuts they were forced to adopt in recent years. Both groups are laying out what they can accomplish with the extra money from the commissioners.

School officials say they can use the extra county funding for efforts such as:

• $3.1 million to hire more fourth- and fifth-grade teachers to reduce class sizes.

• $1.4 million in extra magnet school funding for new and existing schools,

• $773,941 for the first year of a four-year program to phase in the hiring of a part-time technology facilitator to work at every school,

• $749.834 for teachers to attend workshops for training in the new common core curriculum being used statewide in math and reading.

Staff writer Martha Quillin contributed to this report.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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