Wake County school leaders are holding off on deciding how to close a multimillion-dollar budget gap until they make a final plea to county leaders for more money.
The school board must cut $28.8 million from its $1.6 billion operating budget for the new school year. The shortfall might lead to a lack of pay raises for coaches and a decision not to hire more school counselors.
The cut is necessary because the school system got less than half the increase in money it wanted from the Wake County commissioners and because of changes in state funding.
School board members agreed Tuesday to ask commissioners for additional money after talking about how good the school budget is and how hard it is to make cuts in needed programs.
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“This is a budget we believe in,” said school board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner. “It’s a budget that we’ve been talking about for a long time, so to come to this point to trim it is frustrating.”
But school board member Keith Sutton told his colleagues it’s time to face reality. Sutton questioned the value of having another conversation with commissioners for more money when the answer will likely be no.
“Leadership also is part of making the difficult decisions and perhaps having to make cuts that we don’t like ... or want to do, but perhaps maybe have to do,” he said.
Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the commissioners, said Tuesday the county doesn’t plan to give the school district more money this year.
“We had the budget process,” Hutchinson said in an interview. “We finished that in June.”
In an acknowledgment of how difficult it will be to get more money, school board members were asked to provide the district’s finance staff by the end of the week with a list of suggested cuts and areas they want to make sure aren’t cut.
Finance staff said the school board has time to make a decision because the district is operating under an interim budget resolution.
Superintendent Jim Merrill warned the board that he will likely have to look at the new counselors and extra-duty pay raises to close most of the remaining budget gap.
Board members were reluctant to nix the planned extra-duty pay raises, saying they had been promised.
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 were reluctantly more willing to scale back the hiring of new counselors and social workers.
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 of one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students. 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.
This summer, commissioners provided the school board with $21 million of a requested $45.2 million increase in funding. Commissioners have increased school funding by $90 million over the last three years but wanted to limit the size of this year’s property tax increase.
This is the fourth year in a row that commissioners have raised property taxes. The increase of 1.45 cents per $100 of value will bump the property tax rate to 61.5 cents per $100 in valuation. A typical property owner will pay an extra $39 in property taxes.
School finance staff have identified $14.9 million that can be cut from the budget, such as dipping further into the district’s reserves and cutting vacant positions in the transportation department. But board members were reluctant to raise their hands Tuesday with suggestions on where to cut the remaining $13.9 million.
“This is a fair and good budget and our Wake County population deserves this,” said school board member Roxie Cash. “Our students, the families, they deserve this money and that’s what they’re asking for. This is a more than fair budget.”
Staff writer Sarah Nagem contributed.