Wake County

Wake County schools get less than half the requested increase in local money

Linda Robinson teaches a gifted fourth-grade class at Fox Road Elementary School in Raleigh. The Wake County Board of Commissioners is providing the school board with less than half of the $45.2 million increase in local funding it requested for the 2017-18 school year.
Linda Robinson teaches a gifted fourth-grade class at Fox Road Elementary School in Raleigh. The Wake County Board of Commissioners is providing the school board with less than half of the $45.2 million increase in local funding it requested for the 2017-18 school year. tlong@newsobserver.com

Wake County schools will get less than half of what they requested in local funding under a budget plan approved Monday that will leave residents paying a higher property tax rate.

The county Board of Commissioners voted 5-2 to adopt a $1.26 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts in July – boosting funding for public schools by $21 million while raising the property tax rate by 1.45 cents per $100 in value.

The additional school funding is less than half the $45.2 million increase the school board had wanted. Commissioners will give $430.9 million to the school board to supplement what the state provides for things such as employee salaries and supplies.

A proposal by County Manager Jim Hartmann recommended that commissioners give $16 million in new school funding and tell school leaders to use $21 million in unspent funds to boost funding by $37 million.

On Monday, commissioners agreed to provide $5 million more than what Hartmann proposed. The extra money mostly comes from higher-than-expected sales tax revenue and a reduced amount set aside for the long-term building programs for the school system and Wake Technical Community College.

Sig Hutchinson, the board’s chairman, said he didn’t want to raise the property tax rate higher than what Hartmann proposed. Hutchinson and Matt Calabria, the board’s vice chairman, added that the board has raised school funding by 30 percent since Democrats gained control after the 2014 election.

“In contrast to past years, we’re not pulling in opposite directions but are pulling in the same direction,” Calabria said.

Commissioners Greg Ford and Jessica Holmes voted against the budget, saying the $21 million increase fell well short of what the school board needs. Holmes said Wake needs money for school counselors now more than ever as the district deals with a string of racial incidents.

“Students are facing homelessness, hunger, racism – from the teddy bear hung from a noose at Wakefield High School to the Snapchat in Apex referring to the step team as slaves,” Holmes said. “School workers, nurses and counselors are not luxuries but could literally save a child’s life.”

Education supporters, including some who dressed in red as a show of support Monday, had urged commissioners to fully fund the school board’s request this year.

As part of the budget vote, commissioners added wording calling for greater cooperation and planning with the school board on future school budgets, including having joint quarterly meetings of both boards.

School board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said she had thought commissioners would add substantially more than what Hartmann had proposed. She said school leaders had clearly laid out how the $45.2 million was needed for things such as hiring more counselors and raising salaries for bus drivers.

“Maybe I was far too optimistic, too hopeful, but I thought we would get closer because we talked publicly about our budget,” Johnson-Hostler said.

The school board will discuss Tuesday what to do now that it’s getting $24 million less than it requested from the county. It will pass an interim budget to keep the district running while staff works on recommendations on how to close the budget gap.

Commissioners made other changes to Hartmann’s budget, including allocating $80,000 to open three more libraries on Sunday, $50,000 for Legal Aid and $25,000 to help prevent low-income residents who are being evicted from Forest Hills Apartments in Garner from becoming homeless.

This is the fourth year in a row that commissioners have raised property taxes. The increase of 1.45 cents will bump the property tax rate to 61.5 cents per $100 in valuation. A typical property owner will pay an extra $39 in property taxes.

Aside from the school funding increase, the budget puts $1.6 million more into the Sheriff’s Office to boost salaries and create a recruitment position. It sets aside $390,000 to pay for training that enables EMTs to become paramedics and budgets $150,000 for recruiters to use when offering signing bonuses.

The budget creates 28 new positions to help address a range of wellness-related issues, from an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and opioid addiction cases to a rising number of foster children and people staying at the homeless shelter on South Wilmington Street.

An average of 700 children are in foster care in Wake at any given time and county officials expect the number to rise by 30 or 40 now that a state law allows people to stay in the foster care system until they’re 21.

Wake would create the positions using $2.3 million in county funds and $2.9 million in state and federal grants.

Paul A. Specht: 919-460-2608, @AndySpecht

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