Arts supporters hope Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill’s new budget will address longstanding concerns that not enough money is provided for visual and performing arts programs.
On Tuesday, Merrill will present what he thinks will be needed to operate the state’s largest school system for the 2016-17 fiscal year, an amount likely to require more than $1.4 billion from county, state and federal sources. But increased arts funding will have to compete against other concerns. They include keeping up with growth that could bring 2,000 more students, supporting existing efforts to help high-poverty schools and raising employee salaries.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners will consider how much to provide the school system at a time when members are concerned with passing a November referendum to raise sales taxes to pay for the transit plan. Commissioners also are debating whether to put a school construction bond referendum on the November ballot.
This discussion comes after commissioners passed a record $44.6 million increase in school funding last year. The increase provided raises for all 18,000 school employees and included funding for the first step of a five-year plan to raise teacher salaries to the national average by 2020.
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“We’re very grateful for what the county commissioners did for us last year,” said school board Chairman Tom Benton. “There are a lot of pent-up needs in the system that have grown over the years and they took a big step toward correcting them last year.
“We’re still concerned that the state has not stepped up to where they need to be for salaries, which in essence forces counties like Wake to be asked to do more.”
But amid all the budget plans, some still hope that the school system will provide more money for the arts.
“There’s ample research to support the fact that participation in the arts is a very effective educational strategy for our children,” school board member Bill Fletcher said. “It involves collaboration and cooperation in many dimensions.”
At Fletcher’s request, school administrators presented a report in November showing that arts funding is less than half of its level in 1999, forcing parents and students to spend more of their own money to make up the budget shortfall. The school system’s arts budget is $113,000 this school year, compared to $300,000 in the 1999-2000 school year.
The school system and individual schools increasingly rely on fundraisers such as last week’s 34th annual Pieces of Gold show. More than 1,000 students from 32 schools participated in Pieces of Gold in front of a sold-out audience at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium.
Wake’s arts programming received $10,000 from the ticket sales of Pieces of Gold, according to Elizabeth Grimes Droessler, the district’s senior administrator for arts education.
Grimes Droessler said Pieces of Gold funding has paid for master art classes at Athens Drive, Holly Springs, Knightdale and Sanderson high schools in areas such as vocal music, visual art, theater and dance. She said it also has paid for professional development for arts teachers and some equipment repair.
In February, increased arts funding was one of the things that board members told staff they’d like to see included in the new budget. Fletcher said he expects staff to recommend setting a minimum funding level for arts programs in the new budget.
“I look forward to seeing that business case, expect it will be in the budget, and we’ll see whether that gets funded,” Fletcher said.
Benton noted though that the arts are not the area requesting an increase in funding. He said the board will review Merrill’s priorities to see if his proposal matches their priorities and if there’s room for expanding programs.
“We know we got a record amount last year,” Benton said. “We have to be reasonable when we’re looking at expanding programs or putting in new programs.”