Wake County school leaders are warning that schools could be dirtier and less comfortable, and students and teachers might need to dig further into their pockets, if the county commissioners do not give the system more money.
The school system staff laid out potential strategies Tuesday to deal with a possible $16.8 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that starts in July. Wake County Manager Jim Hartmann has recommended giving the system $11.8 million less than the school board wants, and the state House budget would require $5 million more in local money than the district projected.
School board members drew an “amen” from their colleagues when they said commissioners should raise property taxes to provide the extra $11.8 million. Hartmann already is proposing a 1.35-cent increase in the property tax rate, which would add about $36 a year to the tax bill for the owner of property valued at $268,000.
“I will make an appeal to our brothers and sisters on the county commission to consider asking the county manager to find another penny in local property taxes to make sure this budget is fully funded,” said school board member Bill Fletcher. “It needs to be, to have the quality school system that our citizens deserve.”
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The state provides most of the money to operate schools, but counties supplement that funding.
Relations between the school board and commissioners have improved since Democrats, who have controlled the school board since 2011, won a majority on the Board of Commissioners in 2014. Commissioners provided a record $44.6 million increase in school funding last year.
But commissioners face multiple challenges this year, including building public support for an expected November referendum to raise sales taxes a half-cent to pay for the Wake Transit Plan, which would increase public transportation options.
James West, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said the school system and county are not on the same page in terms of the budget. He said the two boards need more discussion.
We’re still willing to do what’s reasonable, but we’re in a situation where we have a lot of other requests.
James West, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners
“We’re still willing to do what’s reasonable, but we’re in a situation where we have a lot of other requests,” West said in an interview Tuesday.
The school board asked the county for $35.7 million more this year, saying most of the increase was needed to keep up with growth and the impact of state legislative decisions. Hartmann proposed a $23.9 million increase in the county budget that commissioners will vote on in June.
School staff laid out a range of potential options for dealing with the $16.8 million shortfall:
▪ Increase class sizes, clean schools one fewer day a week, spend less on instructional supplies and adjust school thermometers by one degree.
▪ Eliminate the use of after-school activity buses and delay planned raises for teachers who do extra duties such as coaching athletic teams.
▪ Increase student parking fees, require students to pay a fee to participate in extracurricular activities such as athletics, and increase employees’ dental premiums.
The school system also is looking at increasing the fees charged to community groups to rent facilities and freezing the local salary supplement that teachers receive.
School board members said they didn’t want to use any of these strategies, which they say would hurt lower-income students most.
“We’ve got to call on our county commissioners, at a minimum, to fund this request because that just gets us back to the cost of doing business,” said school board member Jim Martin.
School board members tried to shift the blame for any potential cuts to the state, saying counties are being forced to cover more of the costs for services.
Any cuts wouldn’t be made until after the county and state adopt their budgets.
I would not want to be in their position of weighing increased mental health services versus increased school services.
Wake County school board Chairman Tom Benton
“I would not want to be in their position of weighing increased mental health services versus increased school services,” said school board Chairman Tom Benton. “Those are all needed things. Will Wake County citizens take more of a tax increase than what they’re proposing?”
School board approves $1.98 billion building program
The program would fund 14 new schools, 11 major renovations and other projects. It’s part of a new effort to work with the county to develop long-term programs.
“This is a program that moves us forward in terms of dealing with some long-overdue capital needs,” said school board member Bill Fletcher.
Commissioners are considering whether to wait until 2018 to put a referendum on the ballot asking voters to approve borrowing money for the school building program. If commissioners wait, the county would issue a small amount of bonds to cover school construction needs for the next few years.