Cary News

Wake schools would get extra $3.9 million under budget proposal

Wake County Manager David Cooke Monday proposed that commissioners grant county schools less than half the additional funds requested by the school board for the next school year.

Cooke, in presenting an overall $941.5 million budget proposal to the board of commissioners, said county revenue is improving but does not allow for greatly increased spending. “While this does not match the board of education’s request, the recommendation shares the growth in our county’s tax base,” Cooke said of the proposal to increase the county’s share of school funding by $3.9 million, to $318.3 million.

Cooke’s proposal does not include a tax increase.

Democratic commissioner Erv Portman said after the meeting that he was glad to hear that conditions are improving, but remains concerned about low levels of funding from state government.

“The state cuts in funding are forcing an unfunded mandate on the schools,” Portman said.

For the past three years, the county budget has included flat funding of about $314 million for the schools, even though the student population has increased by almost 9,000 students to 150,000 students. The additional money Cooke included for next year comes to 1.25 percent, the amount of increase in the tax base.

Wake County Schools Superintendent Tony Tata said Cooke’s proposal “is a step in right direction.” But Tata said, “it’s not a done deal,” as school leaders will continue to lobby to get the full $8.8 million increase requested from the county.

“We appreciate any increase in what the county sends our way and certainly $3.9 million is better than the flat funding we’ve received the last 3-4 years,” Tata said Monday. “We’re appreciative of anything that the county can do for us.”

Tata said school administrators have backup plans in case they don’t get the full $8.8 million. But he said it’s too soon to publicly say what those options would be.

One way to offset the funding gap would be to cut the $5.2 million that would be spent on teacher pay raises. But Tata said Monday he’s committed to funding the raises and not laying off any school employees.

“Our top priority is investing in our people,” Tata said.

School board vice chairman Keith Sutton said he’s hopeful that the county will provide more money to get closer to the $8.8 million.

“I understand that we’re not the only ones in line asking for more money,” he said.

Tata’s budget calls for a small raise for certified employees such as teachers. Other employees would get a one-time bonus. Increased funding from state sources could still make the raises possible.

The proposed $941.5 million county budget is a decrease of more than $10 million from this year’s budget. However, Wake County will turn over more than $32 million in state and federal revenue directly to the new Alliance Behavioral Health agency to look after people in Wake and Durham counties with mental illness or substance abuse problems.

County commissioners have to approve a budget, but can make changes in the amounts proposed by Cooke before expected final approval on June 18.

Cooke’s presentation to the board had a recurring theme of “things are better.” Employment rates, building permits and revenue growth rates have improved, but still aren’t back to pre-recession levels, according to figures presented Monday.

“I am cautiously optimistic about our revenue picture in 2013,” Cooke said. “Things are better, but we are at a very different place than we could ever have predicted four years ago.”

Without raising the property tax rate, the county will have an additional $22 million to work with in the 2012-2013 budget year. The 2.3 percent revenue increase is the result of increased collections in property and sales tax and other revenue.

Among other projected areas to receive more funding, in Cooke’s budget, out of the expected revenue increase:

• Paying off construction projects and building capital funds would receive $6 million.

• The new criminal justice center, the Hammond Road detention center, EMS services and other criminal justice efforts would get a $5.9 million increase.

• Education overall would get a boost of about $4.1 million, with $200,000 going to Wake Tech.

• County employees would get a 2 percent, performance-based raise along with $700,000 in contributions to employee health insurance.

• The board of elections would get a $1.25 million boost, partly in preparation for a November election that will likely produce a large turnout.