One of the most critical investments a community makes is in our public schools. Our schools prepare students to participate in the workforce, make Wake County a desirable location for job creators and new neighbors, lift children out of poverty and positively affect housing values. Sadly, our nationally acclaimed school system has been struggling.
Wake schools have added 19,000 children since 2008, yet per-pupil spending has declined by 2.6 percent overall, including a 4.2 percent decline in per-pupil local funding. In 2014, Wake ranked 107th of 115 school districts in North Carolina in per-pupil funding.
State cuts in public education have shifted more financial responsibility to the local level, and our community is deeply worried. Class sizes have increased while we have lost teacher assistants in the second and third grades. And perhaps most concerning, some of our best teachers are leaving. Since 2002, our teacher salaries have increased a mere 4.1 percent – the lowest percentage increase in the entire nation.
These are the key reasons why the Wake Board of Education thoughtfully requested a budget increase this year: primarily to provide long overdue pay raises to our classroom teachers and other critical non-instructional staff. This investment would go right back into local businesses, housing and food and, most importantly, into providing equitable compensation to the people who educate our children.
With 18,000 employees, Wake County Public Schools is the second-largest employer in the county. But North Carolina teacher salaries are 42nd in the nation, and pay for school bus drivers, custodians and teaching assistants has been stagnant, increasing at a rate far below inflation. Without full funding of the school board’s request, raises for our teachers will be significantly reduced.
In addition to pay increases, the budget request for this year will help expand
the number of pre-K classrooms, accelerate learning in 12 schools, hire instructional technology facilitators, implement the Knightdale High School redesign, expand the magnet program to offer more school choice seats, open three new schools and more.
The quality of our schools has been the single most important factor in Wake County’s continued attraction for businesses and new residents. While property tax rates – the majority of which are not paid by residential owners – are significantly lower than any of our surrounding counties, our schools continue to excel. We have the highest number of National Board Certified teachers in the nation. Our students score higher on the SAT and our dropout rate is at the lowest ever, just 1.95 percent.
The 2015-16 Wake County Board of Education’s proposed budget takes the first steps to reach three crucial goals by 2020: having the highest local investment in per-pupil funding, paying teachers at the national average and graduating 95 percent of its students ready for higher education or a career.
Fully funding the school budget request would add only about one penny more to the inevitable increase. That’s just $27 a year or less than a dime a day for the average homeowner – a bargain to achieve a great vision.
WakeUP and other community organizations support this thoughtful and constructive long-range planning that invests in our community.
Julia Lee is chairman of the Board of Directors for WakeUP Wake County.