Eastern Wake News

Wake schools face challenge getting $39 million from county

School leaders likely face an uphill battle in their bid to get $39 million more from the Wake County Board of Commissioners as part of a long-term plan to raise teacher pay and local spending on schools.

Commissioners, who must approve the schools budget, say that raising taxes would be the only way to provide Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill with the $39 million he wants this year for employee pay raises and new programs. But the Republican majority on the commissioners has been reluctant to raise property taxes, keeping the rate level the past five years. They say they will try this year to reduce the tax increase that was billed as necessary for the $810 million school construction bond issue approved by voters in October.

“We have to be mindful of our taxpayers who are already facing a 4-cent tax hike,” Republican Commissioner Joe Bryan said Wednesday.

If only new tax dollars were used to pay for the $39 million in extra school funding, it would equal a property tax increase of more than 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, or more than $60 per year on a $200,000 home.

Bryan has in the past been a swing vote to work out school funding compromises with Democrats. However, he said, the school system’s request must be weighed against the competing needs of county departments and considered in light of this year’s tax increase.

Merrill’s budget has been called “reasonable” by Larry Nilles, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators. But Ed Jones, chairman of the Wake County Taxpayers Association, said Merrill is “unrealistic.”

The county has a projected $23.5 million in additional revenue available this year without raising taxes. But county staff project $31 million in new funding requests, including $4.5 million for pay raises for county employees.

Could be campaign issue

At least some Democratic commissioners say they’ll consider raising taxes to increase school funding. The outcome of the school funding negotiations could become a campaign issue in November, when all the Board of Commissioners seats held by Republicans happen to be on the ballot.

“I’m going to do everything I can to support the school system in terms of the request,” Democratic Commissioner James West said.

Merrill kicked off the budget season on Tuesday when he unveiled his proposed $1.37 billion operating budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year. As part of the request, Merrill asked for $365.7 million from the county – a 12 percent increase from the current budget.

To help make the case, Merrill noted that the recession has resulted in the state’s largest school district getting 6 percent less funding per student from the county than in the 2008-09 school year. Merrill also said the $2,238 per student he’s now requesting from the county is only $60 more per student than the amount received in 2008-09.

“The economic impact of the recession on Wake County Public Schools has lingered far too long,” Merrill said Tuesday.

The budget, Merrill’s first since being hired in June, is the starting place for his long-term goals to raise Wake’s teacher pay to the national average by 2020 and to make Wake the highest in local per-pupil spending in the state. It could cost more than $200 million in additional local funding in the next five years to reach those goals.

School board members praised the budget on Tuesday, focusing on the difference in per-pupil spending since 2008.

“Although some of our public may see this as a tremendous increase or request, it’s just getting us back in the ballgame,” said school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton.

School board member Kevin Hill added, “I’m not even sure this is getting us back in the ballpark.”

“I think our citizens expect the Wake County Public Schools to lead the way,” Hill said. “We need the funding to try and do that – at least the funding that we’ve lost over the last six years.”

Careful review planned

School board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said Wednesday that the board will review Merrill’s budget carefully before the scheduled adoption on May 6. Historically, school boards add rather than subtract from the superintendent’s budget.

But ultimately it will depend on what the commissioners are willing to provide the school board.

Bryan said Merrill’s budget was developed “in a silo” without consultation of interim County Manager Joe Durham. Bryan said he wanted details on how the budget would raise student achievement.

A central part of Merrill’s budget – $29.1 million in local dollars – would give a 3.5 percent pay raise to all school employees, including teachers, support staff and administrators. The proposal comes at a time when North Carolina is ranked 46th in the nation on average teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.

“Everyone agrees that North Carolina doesn’t adequately pay teachers,” Democratic Commissioner Caroline Sullivan said. “We’re at the bottom of the rankings, and it’s an embarrassment.”

Bryan agreed that the commissioners should look at what can be done locally to improve teacher pay. But he noted that teacher pay has traditionally been a state matter.

“The county is willing to help be part of the solution,” Bryan said. “But I’m not sure it’s incumbent upon local taxpayers to be the whole solution.”

Jones, of the Taxpayers Association, said only the best teachers should get raises.

“The request is ridiculous,” Jones said. “I’d suggest that the superintendent learn a lesson from private schools and charter schools in per-pupil spending. They control their costs while doing an excellent job without wasting money.”