The honeymoon between the all-Democratic Wake County Board of Commissioners and the Democratic majority on the school board seems to be over as both groups are far apart in their ideas on how much money to provide for schools this year.
A majority of Wake commissioners indicated Monday they’re not going to significantly increase the $16 million in new school funding proposed by County Manager Jim Hartmann. The amount is a third of the school board’s $45.2 million request.
Commissioners praised the quality of the school system Monday but at the same time questioned how the district has been spending the money it’s getting from the county.
“There is a pattern that needs to be addressed,” said Commissioner Erv Portman. “The pattern is that the funding requested is not spent. And the funding that is not spent is not going to teacher pay. It is not going to supplies. It is not going to textbooks. It is not going to the things we all want.”
School leaders and district supporters left Monday’s budget work session surprised and disappointed. Commissioners had campaigned on increasing school funding, raising the amount by $67 million since Democrats took over after the 2014 election.
“The bullying stance that the county commission majority is taking right now is very similar to the behavior we’ve seen from the General Assembly majority,” said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition and a former Wake commissioner. “ ‘Manage your schools exactly as we say or we’re going to withhold your funds.’ ”
The showdown comes next Monday when commissioners are expected to adopt a budget for the new fiscal year that starts in July.
The school board is asking for a record $45.2 million increase to cover things such as hiring more counselors and social workers, increasing pay for bus drivers, keeping up with growth, offering new magnet school themes and expanding the Office of Equity Affairs.
There is a point where we have to be cognizant of the voters who are ultimately writing the check on this.
Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners
Hartmann pointed to the school district’s history of spending less than what it budgeted in his spending plan. He said school leaders can use $21 million in unspent local funds it may have left at the end of June.
Under Hartmann’s budget, Wake would raise the property tax rate by 1.45 cents to 61.5 cents for every $100 in value to help keep up with growth. This would be the fourth year in a row for a property tax hike.
“As we have increased taxes over the last four years, there is a point where we have to be cognizant of the voters who are ultimately writing the check on this,” said Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the board of commissioners. “I support the manager’s budget.”
Much of Monday’s meeting focused on the school board’s spending practices. The school system saves money during the year by shifting higher-cost items from local funding to state funding.
Commissioner John Burns said he won’t vote to raise taxes unless he can tell voters where the money is going. He said they can’t completely answer now where the money is going to the school system.
The school board has balked at relying on the unspent leftover local funds because the money may not be recurring.
“I’m puzzled as to why they aren’t acknowledging that our fund balance has lessened and they’re not acknowledging the increased risks that we have for federal and state funding,” said school board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner, who attended Monday’s meeting. “I’m really very concerned about the discussion today, not really collaborating with the school board’s request.”
But Portman said the school board doesn’t need to have reserves on top of the county’s reserves. He said commissioners are committed to public education and have sufficient reserves to cover the school system’s needs.
“The manager has made a very astute recommendation for us,” Portman said. “The alternative of it would be to raise taxes to put money in a savings account. It doesn’t benefit students. It does not benefit taxpayers. It only benefits a bank.”
Moving forward, Portman said both boards need to develop a consistent school funding method. He suggested using an agreed-upon dollar amount for each student.
During public hearings on the budget last week, several speakers said commissioners need to fully fund the school system’s request. Burns said those people want the school board to get everything it wants without taking into account all commissioners have done in recent years to raise education funding.
“I’m not critiquing the need,” he said. “I’m critiquing the lack of perspective on where we’ve come and how we got here.”
The public has already spoken as to what the priorities and values are for this community.
Wake County Commissioner Greg Ford
Speakers at the budget hearings also reminded commissioners of how they had campaigned in 2014 and 2016 on supporting public education. Democrats swept all the seats in both elections.
“The public has already spoken as to what the priorities and values are for this community,” Commissioner Greg Ford, a former Wake principal, said of the last two elections.
Ford said he’s concerned that cutting the school board’s reserves down to the bone will remove their flexibility to meet unexpected needs. Ford and Commissioner Jessica Holmes said they would vote no if the school system only got a $16 million increase.
A majority of commissioners said Monday they’d support giving the school system more than $16 million as long as the tax increase didn’t go higher than Hartmann’s proposal. That means the final amount is likely to be far less than a $45.2 million increase.
“A lot of the things said today were insulting to the school board and insinuating that the school board is not spending money to help children, which is absolutely untrue,” said Brannon of Great Schools in Wake.