Wake County

Wake County leaders want clarity on school budget request

Wake County

Wake County leaders say they need more information from the school system and more clarity on proposed state legislation before moving forward with a request to boost school funding by 14 percent.

Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill last week asked for a record $56.6 million increase in local school funding. Merrill said some of the money would go toward covering costs that the state has paid for decades, such as arts and physical education teachers.

Members of the Wake Board of Commissioners on Monday said they want Merrill and the school board to offer more details on the proposal, which would require a 4-cent property tax increase – an extra $107 a year for the average homeowner.

Changes at the state level put local officials in an awkward position, Commissioner Erv Portman said.

“Do we ignore the needs of public schools in the community and let them fall?” Portman said. “Or do we shift and place on the back of taxpayers the burden that has been traditionally taken on by the state?”

Lawmakers lowered maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grade as part of last year’s state budget. School officials around the state say the changes limit their flexibility to pay specialists such as art, music, foreign language and physical education teachers out of the state dollars provided for regular classroom teachers.

Wake school officials estimate it would cost $26 million more to hire 462 additional K-3 teachers without eliminating elementary school art, music and PE. Merrill said he budgeted $13 million with hopes that state legislators will come through with a solution that won’t be hard on current employees or cost more money.

Commissioner Jessica Holmes said she hopes the legislature will boost funding for school construction in case the county has to hire those 462 positions without cutting elsewhere.

“We don’t have additional space to accommodate 460 new teachers,” Holmes said.

Otherwise, the county has a lot of questions about Merrill’s proposal. Commissioners on Monday described the proposal as vague.

“I feel like a narrative is missing with some of these high-dollar items,” Holmes said.

County staff said they have lingering questions too.

“We are still trying to understand how the schools arrived at these numbers,” said Johnna Rogers, deputy county manager.

The Board of Commissioners, which is responsible for funding school construction and subsidizing teacher pay, has had a tumultuous relationship with the school board over the years. Democrats gained control of the board in 2014 after promising to prioritize school funding and build better relationships with education leaders.

Wake County has increased school operating expenses by 20 percent in two years. About $625.9 million of the county’s general fund – about 52 percent – supports the school district’s operating and capital expenses. Per-pupil spending is also at a record high, county staff noted.

But commissioners made it clear Monday that, despite their affinity for public schools, they will continue to scrutinize spending.

“I’m still of the opinion that there’s not as much transparency as we need in order to do what commissioner Portman talks about,” Commissioner James West said.

While they wait for clarity from school and state leaders, commissioners said they plan to explain to the public how the Republican-led legislature might ask North Carolina counties to foot more of the bill for local schools as it approves what commissioners called “unfunded mandates.”

“Wake County will continue to do its part,” Commissioner Greg Ford said. “But we’re also going to hold our state legislature accountable for these decisions.”

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht