Wake board to rule on cutting school budget

When Democrats take control of the Wake board of commissioners in three weeks, campaign pledges of a more harmonious relationship with the county school board are likely to face an immediate test.

With a projected revenue shortfall of at least $17 million as a result of the global economic downturn, County Manager David Cooke said it will be up to the commissioners to decide whether to ask the school system to trim $5.7 million to cover its share.

If the schools are exempted, the remaining county departments -- including such key operations as the sheriff's office, EMS, and the 911 call center -- will have to make deeper cuts.

Without the schools participating, the other departments would have to cut 4 percent rather than 1.8 percent.

"We see this as a process that will evolve," Cooke told the commissioners at a work session Monday. "It is a policy decision whether we approach the school system."

Commissioner Kenn Gardner, who lost his re-election bid for a third term last week, said it didn't make sense for him to vote on whether or not to cut the school budget when a new board might reverse that decision in a few weeks.

Therefore, it appeared Monday that the board will postpone the decision until at least Dec. 1. That is when new Commissioner Stan Norwalk will be sworn in and the majority of seats will be filled by Democrats for the first time in six years.

Some current members of the board are already voicing their support for making the school system tighten its belt along with the rest of county government.

"It's a sharing of responsibility," said Commissioner Tony Gurley, a Republican.

With the schools having fewer students enrolled for the current school year than was projected, the system was overfunded to the tune of $2.7 million on top of $3 million already held in reserve, Gurley said. The system should be required to give that money back to the county's general fund, he said.

Commissioner Betty Lou Ward said the school system was underfunded, in her view. But she and other Democrats on the board appeared open to asking the schools to make at least some cuts.

"We're all in this bucket together," Ward said.

A majority of school board members are unlikely to welcome any cuts.

After the schools received $36 million less than they had requested from the commissioners earlier this year, school board vice chairman Kevin Hill said they'd be hard-pressed to cut another $5.7 million out of the budget.

"For the life of me, it would be difficult to go over the budget to find $5.7 million to take out," Hill said Monday. "It will definitely impact the classroom."

Hill said he hoped both boards could meet to discuss the situation before a decision is made by commissioners.