Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill wants $56.6 million more in local funding to help offset the state’s upcoming cuts in school class sizes and to hire more counselors and social workers and raise pay for bus drivers.
In presenting his $1.6 billion operating budget Tuesday for the 2017-18 school year, Merrill said the large increase in funding from the Wake County Board of Commissioners is needed because the public wants an “exemplary school system.” Merrill’s wants a 14-percent increase from the county after two years of large increases from commissioners.
“It would be tempting for others to look at these needs as a ‘wish list,’ ” Merrill said. “But our community does not just wish for an exemplary school system. They expect to find it today in Wake County, one of North Carolina’s wealthiest counties.”
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Merrill said most of the additional money is needed to deal with state legislative increases and new and expanded local programs.
Merrill is projecting $28.2 million in legislative increases with $13 million to deal with the impact of savings arts programs at a time when the state is set to cut class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.
Merrill is also calling for $20.1 million for new and expanded programs such as hiring more counselors and social workers, expanding the Office of Equity Affairs and funding an alternative school program for middle school students. Merrill also wants to increase salaries for support staff, particularly in hard-to-fill positions such as bus drivers.
The budget proposal comes as school districts around a state are facing a legislative mandate to reduce class sizes sharply in early elementary school grades. Wake is the largest school system in the state with 159,549 students.
As part of the state budget adopted last year, maximum individual K-3 class sizes will drop from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students this fall. The maximum average K-3 class sizes for school districts will drop from 21 students to between 16 and 18 students.
School officials say the class-size changes remove their flexibility to pay specialists such as art, music, foreign language and physical education teachers out of the state dollars provided for regular classroom teachers. They have supported a compromise bill, House Bill 13, which they say would provide them with enough flexibility to continue to spread money around to offer the special classes.
House Bill 13, which still reduces K-3 class sizes but not as severely as in last year’s budget, was unanimously approved by the House in February, but it has stalled in the Senate.
Merrill said meeting the new class sizes would require hiring 460 additional K-3 teachers and cost $26 million more in local funding in order to have enough money to keep the specialized teachers.
Merrill is calling for half the $26 million in case the class size cuts go into effect. If the cuts don’t occur, he said the need for more local funding would fall to a $43.5 million increase.
Wake school principals have been mapping out how the new class sizes would affect their schools. Some year-round elementary schools have warned parents that students will need to change tracks to get class sizes down this fall.
Commissioners have increased local school funding by $68.5 million over the past two years, but school officials complained they got $11.8 million less than what they requested last year. Wake wound up making cuts last year such as reducing how often schools are cleaned and how much money is spent on instructional supplies.
“I recognize and truly appreciate the local support provided by our County Commissioners,” Merrill said. “I understand there are issues of fairness when local taxpayers are asked to cover costs that the state has paid for decades. But we must cover the costs of continued growth and the loss of state funding just to maintain current levels of service.”