With critics already warning taxpayers to “ gird your wallet” based on Tuesday’s election of a Democratic majority to the Wake County Board of Commissioners, one of the issues in the next few years will be how much funding will go up to build and operate schools.
During the campaign, the incoming Democratic commissioners talked about raising teacher salaries and building enough schools to avoid overcrowding. Increases to the operating and capital sides of the school budget won’t be cheap.
“I would fully expect – based on their campaign promises and going along with the positions taken by the three returning Democratic members – that they’re going to make education a priority,” said Steve Parrott, president of the Wake Education Partnership, a business-backed non-profit advocacy group that supports public education. “I don’t think it’s just campaign rhetoric.”
But Parrott said he expects the Wake County school board will have to justify how it will use any new funding.
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"This isn’t a blank check for the school district," Parrott said. "I’m confident they’re going to look for some fiscal accountability and fiscal responsibility before getting additional funding."
Superintendent Jim Merrill laid out his goals in March when he presented a budget requesting a $39.3 million local funding increase that he said was the first step “to have the highest local investment for students in North Carolina.” He said then that would require raising per-pupil spending by around $400, an increase in local dollars of more than $60 million during the next five years.
Merrill said his other goal was to raise Wake’s average teacher salary of $45,512 to the national average of $56,383 – an increase he said would require an additional $130 million in local dollars by 2020.
Parrott said both are worthwhile goals. But with the amount needed to raise teacher salaries to the national average being so high, Parrott said it needs to be a joint effort by the county and state and not borne just by Wake taxpayers.
Another item the commissioners will likely have to deal with – potentially as soon as 2016 – is putting a new school construction bond referendum on the ballot. That could be a challenge because 2016 would also be the earliest the county could put a referendum on the ballot to raise sales taxes to pay for transit.
Wake can’t put a referendum on the ballot in 2015 because of recent changes in state law made by the General Assembly.
Parrott said a $1.5 billion of $2 billion school bond probably is too much to put on the ballot. The Wake Education Partnership would likely play a major role in trying to get a bond passed.
“What experience has shown is that it would be difficult to present a bond to taxpayers that would be in excess of $1 billion,” Parrott said.
On the school board side, they’re ready to work with the new commission majority.
“We’ve been clearly stating our needs for the last year as a school system on salaries ‑ teacher salaries and staff salaries ‑ and other budget issues,” said school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner. “We’ve been very clear and the voters had a clear choice yesterday. I’m looking forward to rolling up our sleeves and working with the commissioners.”