Midtown Raleigh News

Items on Wake schools’ ‘wish list’ could carry big cost

Wake County school board members have brainstormed about what the state’s largest school system could do with far more local and state funding.

Wake County could become a district where teachers are paid at the national average and support staff also get pay raises. Students would graduate from high school fluent in a foreign language after 13 years of schooling that also included enhanced arts and enrichment classes.

Low-income children would have access to pre-kindergarten programs, and high-poverty schools would get additional resources, including significantly smaller classes.

“Oftentimes we hear people saying, ‘All you do is ask for money,’” school board member Jim Martin said at a board meeting last week. “I think this begins to put some meat on, ‘If we had more, what could we do with it?’”

But school leaders admit it’s not realistic that they’ll get all of the items discussed last week. They’re trying to pare down what they’ll ask Superintendent Jim Merrill to include in the new budget.

The school board’s initial budget discussion on Jan. 20 preceded last Monday’s joint meeting with the new all-Democratic county Board of Commissioners.

School leaders say it will be a challenging budget year. The big question is what will happen at the state government level, which provides 60 percent of the school district’s operating budget and where tax collections so far are $199 million less than expectations.

School board members were asked by staff to identify items they’d want Merrill to include in the $1.3-billion operating budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year that he’ll present in March. Board members went through the items last week using terms like “wish list,” “dream list” and “opportunity list.”

“It’s a great list,” Martin said. “If we did this, we’d see major transformations.”

Some items would have big price tags. For instance, one idea calls for developing a plan to move Wake’s 10,500 teachers to the national pay average by 2018, with funding this year for the first step. According to Wake school figures, the average teacher salary is $49,798. The national average is $56,383, a figure that could cost $100 million in local and state dollars to reach.

Examples of other items on the list include development of innovative academic programs in existing schools, expansion of the program for struggling schools, student health centers at each high school and supplies so that science classes can do hands-on experiments.

But some items on the list would restore cuts made in recent years. It would cost $7 million to restore two additional days a week of custodial services and $5 million to reverse salary cuts for teacher assistants.

Largely because of the recession, funding hasn’t kept up with enrollment growth. Wake is receiving $8,517 per student in its operating budget compared to $9,092 in the 2008-09 school year.

“I’m frustrated that we can not offer today what we offered 20 years ago, or 15 years ago,” school board member Kevin Hill said. “Wake County is better than that and should be better than that, so the conversation has to be, ‘Where is our resolve for our kids?’”

Merrill asked each board member to rank three items from the list they’d most like to include in the budget.

“We’re early in the process,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said in an interview. “We’re trying to be very thoughtful of the budget we present to commissioners.”