'Our students need you to help us,' Wake principals and social workers tell commissioners

Seated left to right, Wake County Commissioner James West and Wake County school board members Jim Martin and Lindsay Mahaffey hear school staff members talk about funding needs at a joint meeting May 22, 2018 in Cary, N.C.
Seated left to right, Wake County Commissioner James West and Wake County school board members Jim Martin and Lindsay Mahaffey hear school staff members talk about funding needs at a joint meeting May 22, 2018 in Cary, N.C. khui@newsobserver.com

Wake County school leaders turned Tuesday to their principals and social workers to make a direct plea to county commissioners to provide a record $58.9 million budget increase this year.

The Wake County Board of Commissioners is weighing whether to increase school funding by more than the $30.1 million increase recommended by County Manager David Ellis. With the budget vote coming in two weeks, several principals and school employees told commissioners that the district's future is at stake.

“I know that our leaders know what is at stake," Tara Jones, Wake's school social worker of the year, told commissioners. "I know that our leaders will examine every single avenue that they have and they will make the absolute best decisions that they can possibly make to help those of us who serve our children."

But it was unclear after Tuesday's joint meeting of the school board and commissioners whether the school district would get more of what it hopes for this year.

"Will we get to $58 million?" Commissioner John Burns said in an interview after the meeting. "I don't see how that's possible. But I do think that there will be a lot of discussions happening between now and the budget vote."

Jessica Holmes, chairwoman of the board of commissioners, said it might be necessary to phase in the school funding increase.

"The Board of Commissioners came into this meeting with an open mind and an open heart as it relates to ensuring that we meet the needs of the school system," Holmes said in an interview. "That doesn't necessarily mean we have the ability to fund every single request at this moment in time."

School leaders say $48 million of the increase is needed to maintain current levels of services to students, with the remaining $11 million going toward new programs such as adding more counselors, social workers and psychologists.

The budget proposed by Ellis already calls for a 2.9 cent property tax increase, or nearly $87 more per year on the average home in Wake County. Closing the $28 million gap between Ellis' budget and the school board's budget would require an even higher tax increase.

On Monday, school system supporters packed two budget public hearings held by county commissioners. On Tuesday, the school board brought out its employees.

Principals talked about how $19 million of the increase is going toward meeting state legislative mandated items, such as reducing K-3 class sizes. Jonathan Enns, principal of Fuquay-Varina High School, said the way North Carolina funds education means he's cutting programs for this fall. He said the school will have the same number of teachers this fall that it had four years ago, when the school had 200 fewer students.

Around $11 million of the increase is going toward opening four new schools.

"Opening a new school is a fantastic experience," said Matt Wight, principal of Apex Friendship High School. "But it has lots of challenges that you might not anticipate."

About $8 million of the increase will go toward replacing a federal special-education grant that's running out. The money is disappearing at a time when Wake has added 150 students since July 1 who have significant disabilities, according to Pam Doak, a senior director of special education services.

Doak gave an example of how a student with severe hearing impairment needs a special cart that costs $500 a day.

Ballentine Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina has special-needs students who are non-verbal, need help to use the toilet, and who have feeding tubes and frequent seizures, according to principal Kim Short.

“Our students need you to help us maintain progress that we’ve made over 32 years," Short told commissioners. "1986 isn’t an option. As we say in Wake County, what starts here changes everything.”

In terms of new programs, $5 million is budgeted to hire 35 additional school counselors, 20 school social workers and seven school psychologists

Jones, the social worker, said she's seeing more students each year who are suffering from "environmental trauma," such as being homeless, coming from domestic violence situations or are "scared out of their mind" because their caregiver has been deported.

Jones warned that unless the school system gets more people to support students, Wake could become like places in Florida, Colorado and Connecticut where there have been mass school shootings.

“These kids come to school and some of them, the only faces and voices they hear that say, 'I believe in you and I know you can do anything you put your mind to' are the voices and faces they see in our schools."

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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