Wake County school athletic coaches might not get pay raises and nearly 150 new counselors and social workers who would help struggling students might not be hired due to a nearly $29 million budget gap.
School administrators said Tuesday that $28.8 million has to be trimmed, largely because the district got less than half of the $45.2 million increase it wanted from the Wake County Board of Commissioners. School officials said eliminating some or all of a $10 million plan to hire more counselors and social workers this year and delaying a $2.6 million increase in extra-duty pay are possible budget options.
School leaders will now try to arrange a small-group meeting of members of both the school board and commissioners to see if any additional local funding could be provided this year. In the meantime, the school board will work through August to balance the budget.
“As you all know, I was an optimist thinking that we were going to get what we asked for,” school board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said in an interview. “So now I’m a realist that we didn’t get that.
“Do I think we’re going to go in this room and get everything that we asked for? Probably not.”
National groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students. The ratio in Wake is one social worker for every 1,860 students and one counselor for every 630 elementary school students, 372 middle school students and 393 high school students.
School leaders have a three-year, $30 million plan to hire 440 additional counselors and social workers to bring Wake to the nationally recommended average. This year’s budget calls for spending $10 million to hire 147 more counselors and social workers.
School leaders say the counselors are needed to help students deal with a wide range of challenges such as failing grades, bullying, thoughts of suicide and other mental health issues, chronic absenteeism and difficult home situations.
“I’m disappointed that we’re faced with that as one of our choices, given the budget picture that’s been drawn by both the state and the county,” school board member Bill Fletcher said of not hiring the new counselors and social workers. “That’s not a choice that I want to make to postpone providing the services necessary to our most needy children.”
This year’s budget challenge comes as Wake is in the middle of a five-year plan to raise pay for staff who perform extra duties. This includes athletic coaches, academic coaches, band and chorus directors, club advisers and department chairs.
Wake started the five-year plan in 2015 because the extra-duty salary schedule had not changed for many positions since 1987.
Board members questioned whether the district would be seen as going back on its word by not coming up with this year’s raises.
“The commitment is our integrity to our employees,” Johnson-Hostler said during the meeting.
Superintendent Jim Merrill warned that keeping the pay raises means having to find something else to cut from the budget.
In May, the school board adopted a $1.6 billion operating budget for the 2017-18 school year.
But the school district needs to cut $24.2 million after getting less than it requested from the county. Wake also has to cut $4.6 million to deal with the state budget.
School administrators are recommending closing $14.9 million of the $28.8 million gap by:
▪ Cutting $6 million by largely using federal dollars to pay for some items and reducing $1.7 million in proposed raises for bus drivers due to the state providing them raises;
▪ Spending an extra $5.9 million from the district’s reserves, leaving all but $1.1 million of the amount that was available as of June 30, 2016;
▪ Reducing the transportation budget by $3 million due to Wake’s inability to hire enough bus drivers.
That leaves $13.9 million to cut, with the pay for counselors and coaches closing most of the remaining deficit.