Garner Cleveland Record

Wake schools leader seeks 14% budget increase

Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill.
Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Superintendent Jim Merrill says the first step for raising Wake County schools to the level of excellence that the community expects would require $48.3 million more in local funding – an increase the system may have its best chance in recent years of receiving.

Merrill on Tuesday proposed to ask the Wake County Board of Commissioners for $389.8 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year – an increase of 14 percent from the $341.4 million that the school system now receives. The funding increase would go toward goals such as moving Wake’s teacher pay to the national average by 2020.

The former Republican majority on the commissioners shot down requests for big funding increases. But a new Democratic majority that took office after last fall’s elections had campaigned on increasing school funding – something Merrill pointed out Tuesday.

“Through public forums and elections, I believe the citizens of Wake County have made their desire clear when it comes to providing the necessary resources to sustain an excellent school system,” Merrill said.

It would almost certainly take a tax increase to fund most of what Merrill wants.

School board members embraced Merrill’s budget, saying it would help carry out the recently adopted goal of having a 95-percent graduation rate by 2020.

“I know some people are going to have heartburn when they see the amount requested,” said school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton. “But I hope that before people will jump to a judgment that they will look at the needs that have built up over the past several years.”

Merrill’s budget aims for Wake County to have the highest local investment for students of any county in North Carolina by 2020. That would require raising per-pupil spending by around $400 per student, he said.

School administrators say the bulk of the $48.3 million increase would go toward keeping up with enrollment growth in the state’s largest school system, to provide staff pay raises and to start some new academic programs. With 155,184 students, Wake is projected to add nearly 3,000 more this fall.

The majority of the funding increase, $27.3 million, would provide pay raises for all 18,000 school employees.

Merrill’s budget proposal would continue the efforts he promoted last year to raise Wake’s average teacher salary of $49,597 to the national average of more than $56,000. Overall, he said it would cost $80 million to reach the goal.

“We must begin to take these steps if we intend to retain the high-quality classroom teachers we have and recruit the ones we need,” Merrill said.

Teachers who perform extra-duty work such as being athletic coaches, academic coaches, club advisers and department chairs would also get the first installment of what Merrill envisions as a five-year pay boost. He pointed out that the extra-duty salary schedule has not changed for many positions since 1987.

Merrill is also calling for a 3 percent pay raise for all of the district’s support staff, which includes bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries, custodians, maintenance workers and teacher assistants.

The budget also includes $2.3 million in new local money for academic efforts such as expanding pre-kindergarten services for low-income children, supporting 12 high-poverty elementary schools and redesigning Knightdale High School’s academic program.

Merrill acknowledged he was asking for a major increase in local funding. But he said the request was needed because funding has lagged growth since the recession.

In the 2008-09 school year, Wake was receiving $2,178 per student from the county and $9,092 per child overall. This school year, the district is getting $2,085 per student from the county and $8,856 per student overall.

Merrill’s budget proposal would increase the per-pupil amount from the county to $2,324, an increase of $239 annually.

“While I recognize that the county faces many compelling needs, I make this request without apology,” Merrill said. “It represents the backlog created by seven years of growth and a decrease in per-pupil funding.”

Overall, Merrill wants commissioners to provide 28 percent of his proposed overall 2015-16 operating budget of $1.4 billion. The state provides the majority of Wake’s funding, an arrangement that school administrators warned poses some uncertainties.

Under a budget change approved by the General Assembly last year, the state will no longer automatically fund school-population growth, but Wake officials won’t know the impact until the state budget is completed.

The school board will hold a public hearing on the budget on April 21 with the goal of sending the request to commissioners in May.

“It’s time for us to do what needs to be done locally to sustain and to improve the programs and services provided to the community,” said school board member Bill Fletcher.

Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui

Raising school employee pay

The majority of the $48.3 million increase that Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill wants from the county Board of Commissioners would cover a pay raise for all 18,000 employees. Go to bit.ly/1GIHVMG to view the whole budget and to bit.ly/1E1NYvc for a summary of the budget.

▪ First step to raise teacher pay to national average – $16 million

▪ Provide 3 percent raise to support staff – $6 million

▪ Local costs for state raising pay for beginning teachers to $35,000 – $3.5 million

▪ First step to increase extra-duty pay – $1.8 million

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