This year’s state and local budget season has confirmed a long-held speculation on the priorities our elected officials have for funding public education. It has become clear that traditional methods of investing in a world-class public education system are gone, and the responsibility for supporting a high-quality system that enables students to meet future workforce content and skill requirements continues to trickle down to the local taxpayer.
Yet we are faced with the question of how much responsibility local taxpayers should have for paying for public education. The Wake County Public School System is requesting an additional $45.2 million in funding from the Wake County Board of Commissioners for the 2017-2018 school year. County Manager Jim Hartmann has re-calculated the increase to be approximately $37 million (Hartmann proposes $16 million in new funding from the county and a recommendation that the school system use an estimated $21 million in unspent funds from the current school year’s budget). The commissioners are scheduled to make their final budget decision on June 19, but until then, there is a $29 million gap in new local funding requested by the school system.
This happens every year at the local level, and rest assured it will happen again next year, unless something changes in the operating expense budgeting process. This can and must change, and there is an example to follow.
We have seen improvements in determining capital and debt budget needs for public school construction as a result of improved collaboration between the elected boards and staff of these two organizations. Last year, the two reached a historic agreement to develop a rolling seven-year capital improvement plan that can correctly forecast borrowing needs for school renovation and new construction. This agreement means the school system can continue to meets its exponential growth demands while the county government can space out its borrowing to make sure it isn’t taking on too much debt at once. It’s also a win for Wake taxpayers who don’t get hit with unpredictable spikes in tax rates.
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School board members and county commissioners have publicly acknowledged they would like to the see the same type of long-range planning be applied to the annual operating budget process. This year, leaders from both boards met to discuss budget priorities and they have brought those discussions to their respective staff. However, it doesn’t appear that similar collaboration and agreement has resulted from staff discussions between the organizations.
There is still disagreement about how Wake County public schools should handle any unspent funds at the end of their fiscal year on June 30. The county staff believes any budget money left unspent at the end of the fiscal year should be carried forward into the 2017-18 fiscal year and used for new or expanding programs. The school system staff believes that the estimated $21 million won’t be available for recurring operational expenses next year because it will be needed to offset state and federal funding changes (actions that are beyond the control of the school system). Despite discussions on both sides, this issue remains unresolved.
This can’t keep happening. Wake County taxpayers deserve predictability regarding increases in property taxes and a clearer indication of how the new funding will be used to improve our public schools. WakeEd wants to see a shared vision for local funding of public education emerge before next year’s budget season commences, and we are ready to work with Hartmann and superintendent Jim Merrill to convene leading local chief financial officers to provide an independent review and work with the two on joint recommendations to the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education regarding the future budgeting process. The work of this group would include the following:
Review the current budgeting process for 2017-2018 and identify the drivers of disagreement between the county and school system;
Review what our public school system leadership has identified as “needed” to enable schools to best prepare students to meet future workforce requirements;
Outline what it will take (time frame and cost) to move our school system to the desired exemplary model;
Develop a long-range plan that enables our school system to meet prioritized outcomes and our county government opportunities to explore potential funding solutions.
The results would be shared with the community at large, but most importantly, they would become the framework for future budget development and agreements between the school system and county government. The framework would prioritize local spending so schools can grow into the world-class public school system this county deserves.
C. Steve Parrott is president of WakeEd Partnership, an independent nonprofit organization that serves as the business champion for public education in Wake County. Email Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more at www.wakeed.org.