Wake County school board members faced the reality Saturday that money likely isn’t available for many of the new programs they’d like to offer this year to boost student achievement.
During their winter retreat Saturday, board members talked about the items they’d like to offer, such as more pre-kindergarten classes for low-income children, innovative new programs at schools and additional funding to support high-needs schools. But as they tested how they might offer some of these programs, board members said many critical items won’t be provided unless they get a lot more money.
“You need to understand, the resources you give us is going to determine the quality of schooling that we have,” school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said at the meeting at the United Way of the Greater Triangle. “We’re not playing games. We’re not shifting money around. This is what this will buy you.”
Board members were asked by staff to identify items they’d want Superintendent Jim Merrill to include in the $1.3 billion operating budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year that he’ll present March 17. From there, the school board will review the proposal and make the pitch for more funding to the Wake County Board of Commissioners and the state.
The school board doesn’t have taxing authority. But the new Democratic majority on the board of commissioners has expressed support for increasing school funding. How much the commissioners will provide while balancing other county needs is uncertain.
Cost estimates were presented Saturday for various items, including:
• Raising teacher salaries to the national average – $140 million,
• Expanding personnel and programming at alternative learning centers at middle schools and high schools – $10.3 million,
• Restoring teacher assistants to 10-month contracts – $4.2 million,
• Funding high-needs schools, including additional salaries and positions – $3.8 million,
• Expanding pre-kindergarten for 144 low-income children – $1.4 million,
• Paying substitute teachers to cover the classes for all of Wake’s 10,000 teachers so they can get professional development – $980,000 a day,
• Offering innovative academic designs – $750,000 per school,
• Offering K-12 instruction so students will graduate high school conversant in a foreign language – $52,000 per school.
“None of this is a wish list,” school board member Bill Fletcher said. “These are realistic views of strategically identified options to improve success for kids.”
Board members say they want to try to get back to pre-recession funding levels when the district was getting $500 more per child. The 155,000-student Wake school system receives $1,000 less per child than some North Carolina districts.
“That is trying to restore where we were 10 years ago in serving children,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said.
David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer, had board members split into three groups to role play what new programs they would offer if they had $5 million in new funding. He gave the groups the option of increasing the amount of new funding available in their hypothetical scenarios.
The groups came back with scenarios ranging from requests for $5 million to $23 million in new funding.
“It’s almost like going shopping for a new house,” Benton said. “Are you going to get just bare, basic needs that might not even serve all of the needs that your family has, or are you going to expand that into quality?”