Superintendent Jim Merrill wants a $48.4 million bump for the school system this year from the Wake County Board of Commissioners, but the figure seems too high for at least some county leaders.
Merrill proposed Tuesday asking the commissioners for a total of $389.8 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year – an increase of 14 percent from the $341.4 million that the system is receiving this school year. But James West, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, called Merrill’s proposal a “budget buster.”
“That amount right now is not practical,” West said in an interview Wednesday. “It may be necessary, but at the same time we have other departments that have got essential needs. It’s a little bit much. Hopefully, it’s something we can work out over time.”
Echoing some of the concerns raised by the board’s former Republican majority, West, a Democrat, said commissioners should be mindful that some people are still suffering from the recession. He also questioned the expectation that Wake will pick up all the responsibilities the state has historically provided for public-education funding.
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This might not be the response that school leaders envisioned when Democrats swept into control of the board of commissioners last year on a message of increasing school funding.
“It’s time that we start putting our money where our talk has been,” school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said at Tuesday’s board meeting
In an interview Wednesday, Benton said, “It seems in the public discussion and the election results last fall, there’s a lot of interest in Wake County citizens to maintain high quality and improve our schools.”
School administrators say the bulk of the $48.4 million increase would go toward keeping up with enrollment growth, providing staff pay raises and starting new academic programs. Administrators and school board members, who still must officially vote on Merrill’s budget, say the increase is needed because per-pupil funding has dropped below what was given before the recession.
Potential tax increase
But commissioners face potential property-tax increases – as much as $100 a year on a $250,000 home – to provide $48.4 million.
County staff are projecting a $27.5 million increase in tax revenue this year, but most of it is committed to items such as paying off school-construction bonds. That leaves $13.4 million in revenue available at a time when other county agencies have requested increases of a combined $18.5 million.
“The money is just not there right now,” West said. “We want to put a high priority on the school system. We want to work with them.”
What could emerge is a compromise that would result in the school system’s getting something less than $48.4 million.
David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College, said a “modest” increase of several cents on the property tax rate might be OK with the public.
“There’s a likelihood that a tax increase could be passed without having huge political ramifications,” he said. “There’s been so much negative press about the state of schools and the state of teaching that the people of Wake County would be willing to support it.”
McLennan said this year might also be the right time to act because new election maps adopted by the Republican-led General Assembly for both the commissioners and school board go into effect in 2016. He said the election-map changes could result in neither board’s having a strong Democratic majority.
‘Improving their results’
But groups such as the Wake County Taxpayers Assocation would likely balk at a tax hike.
“Wake County is certainly not the best-performing school system,” said Tony Pecoraro, vice president of the Wake County Taxpayers Association. “If they could improve their results demonstrably, I don’t think there would be a problem with it. But they have not been improving their results.”
Commissioners could emphasize that the majority of Merrill’s proposed funding increase – $27.3 million – will go toward providing pay raises for all 18,000 school employees. Merrill is proposing increasing teacher salaries by $16 million this year as part of five-year, $80-million plan to raise them to the national average.
“When we ran, we ran on improving our public schools and paying our teachers more,” said Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, one of four new members elected in November. “When I read the superintendent’s comments on the things he wanted to improve, those are things I agree with.”
Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui