Cary News

Wake school board asks county for $8.8 million fund boost

and T. Keung Hui

Wake County school board members headed for an election-year dustup Tuesday by asking for $8.8 million more to fund schools than the county commissioners are likely to offer.

The budget request was approved when Republican school board member Chris Malone joined the five Democratic members to vote yes.

With 150,000 students expected in the 2012-2013 school year, the system has received about the same amount of local money, about $314 million, from the commissioners since 2009, while adding 13,000 students. That has meant a steady drop in per-pupil spending.

“It was the right thing to do. I wanted to vote with my fellow conservatives, but they’re wrong,” Malone said after a vote in which Republicans John Tedesco, Debra Goldman and Deborah Prickett voted no.

Members of the Board of Commissioners, three of whom are running for higher office, had given school board members notice that a major increase in funding was not likely for the coming year. While the schools’ needs have grown, so have those of other departments, commissioners said.

Paul Coble, chairman of the board of commissioners, told school board members when they met together in late March that all parts of county government were facing hard times. He predicted difficult decisions down the road.

The 6-3 vote by the school board was needed to waive board policy that limits how much it can use from its rainy-day fund to balance the budget.

As a basis for the additional $8.8 million, Superintendent Tony Tata and several board members have said the level local funding, along with state cuts to the system, is not adequate.

“It’s a plan; it should not be a static thing,” said Democratic board member Christine Kushner, noting that the document can be adjusted throughout the year.

School board chairman Kevin Hill had asked last week for an undetermined increase to pay for school supplies that will otherwise go under the budget ax, as well as money to restore cuts to janitorial services. David Neter, the school system’s chief business officer, said Tuesday that money from the current fiscal year might be combined with other savings to pay for the supplies and cleaning.

County commissioners must complete the document in June to produce a balanced budget by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Three members of each board are running for other offices in May 8 primaries. Five of the six candidates are Republicans campaigning on small-government, low-taxes platforms.

On the board of commissioners, it’s Erv Portman for the Democratic nomination for a state Senate seat, Coble for a GOP nomination for a U.S. House seat and former chair Tony Gurley for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.

On the school board, the members hoping for higher office are all Republicans. Member Debra Goldman is running for the party’s nod for state auditor, Tedesco for the nomination for state schools superintendent and Malone for a state House seat.

Board members Jim Martin and Hill raised the election-year angle during debate on the budget.

Tata developed a $1.2 billion operating budget for the coming fiscal year that calls for no layoffs, a one-time $500 bonus for non-teachers and a 1 percent pay raise for teachers. Tata is also relying on using $28.9 million of the district’s $33.9 million fund balance, colloquially called the rainy-day fund, to replace the loss of federal dollars that helped save more than 500 teachers and other jobs this year.

Goldman argued Tuesday that the board hadn’t spent enough time discussing the budget to call for a vote.

“When you’re about to vote on a billion-dollar budget, you better have all your questions answered,” she said.

But Malone cited the need to adopt the budget by May 15 to comply with state law. He also said it was a “pragmatic” budget that recognized they had to make hard decisions to meet the school system’s needs.

Democratic school board member Susan Evans said it was a realistic budget that recognizes what the county can provide.

“It’s an appropriate budget for this time,” she said.