Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill’s proposal for a record $56.6 million increase in local school funding is generating sticker shock and a lukewarm response from some community leaders.
Merrill says his proposed 14 percent increase in funding from the Wake County Board of Commissioners is needed to help offset elementary school cuts in art, music and physical education, to keep up with growth, to hire more counselors and to maintain the quality of North Carolina’s largest school system.
Commissioners, who campaigned in 2014 on supporting public education, have raised property taxes to help increase school funding by a total of $68.5 million the past two years. Merrill is hoping commissioners are willing to dig even deeper into county coffers this year.
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“I just hope they understand the implications for us and that we’ve tried to make the request pretty easy to understand and what our compulsion is in trying to cover these needs,” Merrill told reporters after unveiling his budget Tuesday. “I don’t envy their decision-making, but we’ve tried to be as clear as we could about why it’s important and what’s important.”
Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday it would require another property tax rate increase to provide $56.6 million more for the school system.
“To fully fund the superintendent’s request would mean a 4 cent property tax increase for the voters,” Hutchinson said. “That’s not counting the other needs for Wake County.”
Hutchinson added that an average of 64 people move to Wake each day, and that the population growth is putting more demands on county services.
Merrill’s budget is part of a “tax and spend mentality,” according to Charles Hellwig, chairman of the Wake County Republican Party.
“The Wake school board and the all-Democrat Wake Board of Commissioners always default to increasing taxes,” Hellwig said. “They never consider cutting waste – they just keep reaching into the taxpayers’ pockets. Do Wake County parents feel we’re getting a good value for these ever-increasing expenditures and tax hikes?”
Merrill wants the county to provide $466.5 million of his $1.6 billion operating budget for the 2017-18 school year. Part of the requested increase in local funding would go toward covering costs that the state has paid for decades, such as arts and physical education teachers.
Lawmakers lowered maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grade as part of last year’s state budget. School officials around the state say the 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.
Many school districts 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. The bill was unanimously approved by the House but has stalled in the Senate.
Wake school officials estimate it would cost $26 million more to hire 462 additional K-3 teachers without eliminating elementary school art, music and PE. Merrill said he budgeted $13 million with hopes that state legislators will come through with a solution that won’t be hard on current employees or cost more money.
But Merrill said the state needs to act soon since year-round schools are making plans for the start of the next school year in July.
“Eventually Wake County is going to have to go ahead and start making some very hard decisions, but I’m trying to wait as long as we can,” he said.
Senate Republican leaders have questioned how districts are using state education dollars.
“Will you ask Superintendent Merrill why he has failed to provide complete data to the General Assembly so lawmakers can understand where he is spending the millions of dollars that have been sent to Wake County to reduce class size?” said Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate Leader Phil Berger. “Will you ask him why he feels those priorities are more important than lowering class sizes/hiring more teachers?”
Other items using local dollars in Merrill’s budget include:
▪ Start a three-year plan to hire more guidance counselors and social workers to reach nationally recommended averages – $10 million;
▪ Operate new schools and support changes related to renovations – $3.9 million;
▪ Increase extra-duty pay for teachers who perform additional jobs such as coach academic and athletic teams – $2.6 million;
▪ Increase pay for support staff who work in hard-to-fill positions such as bus drivers – $2.2 million.
The school board is scheduled to review the budget April 18 and vote on it May 2. It would then go to the commissioners, who will decide in June how much money to provide the school system.
Hutchinson declined to comment on how much school funding he supports. He said he first needs to talk to County Manager Jim Hartmann, who’s expected to make a budget proposal in early May.
“I want to emphasize what a great public school system we have, and how, obviously, we want to keep it that way,” Hutchinson said.