Midtown Raleigh News

No lay-offs now, but Wake schools could face a $32M shortfall next year

Wake County school leaders said Tuesday they’ll be able to avoid layoffs this year by juggling funds, but they’re facing a budget shortfall of more than $32 million for next year.

David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer, said taking advantage of flexibility in state funding and adding $3.4 million in one-time money to close the budget gap, school officials will be able to avoid reducing the number of school employees this year.

But Neter warned school board members that they’re increasing their budget challenges next year. Wake must figure out how to replace the $28.6 million in the rainy-day fund that was used to balance the budget this year.

“We are kicking the proverbial can down the road,” Neter said.

Neter said the Legislature’s move to restore $35 million in discretionary funding, which had been held back in recent years, was a major help this year. He said the use of the discretionary funding largely offsets other state decreases.

For instance, Wake is getting $19.8 million less than originally budgeted in state dollars for teacher positions. But the schools are also getting $4.4 million more than budgeted for instructional supplies. That money will be used to plug the budget gap.

Wake gets around $700 million in state funding.

Neter also said that the school system’s growth, an estimated 3,200 students this fall, also helped reduce the impact of state cuts.

For example, the state cut overall funding for teacher assistants. But Wake’s growth means it qualifies for $7.9 million more than budgeted for teacher assistants.

Overall, Neter said Wake is expecting to get around $100 less per student than last year from the state for its more than 150,000 students.

“The resources available to the Wake County school system in 2013 are significantly different than they were in 2008,” Neter said.

Neter said they’re not sure how they’ll fund some positions next year, such as the guidance counselors who are being covered this year by reallocating $1.7 million in extra Medicaid dollars.

For the past few years, Wake has been using most of its fund balance – colloquially termed a “rainy day fund” – to avoid layoffs. The risk is that, unless the money is replenished or replaced, doing that creates a budget deficit for the following year.

“As we begin the budget cycle for the 2014-15 year, we’re in a $32 million hole,” said school board member Bill Fletcher. “It’s a $32-million hole to maintain status quo without dealing with inflation or additional students.”