Wake County

Money for school counselors shouldn't be part of political 'game,' Wake leader says

Wake County Commissioner John Burns
Wake County Commissioner John Burns cliddy@newsobserver.com

At least one Wake County leader wants to use a unique funding tool to make sure the school district can hire more counselors.

Wake County Commissioner John Burns is advocating for the creation of a special pool of money the school board could only use to hire counselors, which school leaders have said are needed.

The idea is being considered, Burns said, to keep the issue from being a political football during the next election cycle.

“In the past, what (the school board has) done is take the most politically unpalatable program, not funded it and then blame the commission for it,” Burns said. “This is too important to let that game happen.”

The issue was brought up Wednesday during the last planned budget work session before the commissioners are set to vote on the proposed $1.3 billion budget on Monday. The recommended budget includes a 2.9 cent increase to the property tax rate to boost funding for schools and to dedicate new money toward the county's affordable housing goals.

The budget includes $30.1 million in additional funding for Wake County schools but falls short of the $58 million increase the school board requested. School board members say $48 million is needed to maintain services, including opening four new schools and meeting the state-mandated K-3 class size changes.

As part of the request, the school board asked for $5.1 million for "school support for emotional learning (counselors, social workers, psychologists and contracted services) and positive parenting program."

It's unclear if the money for school counselors would be for the full $5.1 million or on top of the $30 million in additional funding the county manager is recommending.

"There is undoubtedly an issue and interest in school security,” Burns said. “And there is undoubtedly a connection in those staffing positions and school security. There is a clear will in the community to do something about it."

This would be only the third time in recent memory that the county has used a "specific purpose reserve." The county isn't allowed to lower the school board's budget after it's approved unless it also lowers the county's overall budget by the same percentage or there is an emergency.

"It's clearly a compelling need that people want us to address, and we can't stand idly by and not do anything," Burns said. "I heard the message in the last election and this my attempt to make sure it gets remedied."

Commissioner Greg Ford, a former Wake County school principal, said he was concerned about the "subtext" of creating separate pool of money for the school counselors.

"Traditionally we give them the appropriation, unallocated, that they can use as they wish," he said. "This is kind of a way of earmarking that money and making sure they use it for something they've identified as a priority. What's prevents us or future boards from using this as a vehicle to do that for any other issue?"

Burns answered "the political process."

If the commissioners use the special pool for the school counselors, it will appear as though the commissioners are telling the school board what to do, said Commissioner James West, when the county is just the funding agency. Burns countered and said he didn't want to tell the school board where to bus students or how much to pay bus drivers but this was a matter of "the safety and security of our schools."

Burns lost his re-election bid to fellow Democrat Vickie Adamson earlier this month. Adamson will now face Republican Alex Moore this fall in the general election.

One of the issues during the Democratic primary concerned the county's school funding. The five commissioners who voted for the current year's budget — which didn't include the school board's full request — all faced Democratic challengers.

It wrapped up a more than four-hour budget work session where, among other items, commissioners reviewed questions they'd previously submitted to the school board and came to an initial consensus regarding the school bond that will appear on the ballot in November.

Commissioners seemed to agree on a $548 million bond for Wake County schools, a $349 million bond for Wake Technical Community College and a $120 million bond for parks and open space. If all the bonds are approved, the property tax rate will increase 3.8 cents per $100 valuation the following year.

Wake leaders will hold a public hearing and adopt a resolution calling for the referendum by Aug. 9.

Commissioners meet at 5 p.m. Monday.