Wake school leaders say $45.2 million increase needed; question county budget figures

Joe Barley-Maloney teaches a tenth-grade American History II class on Aug. 4, 2014 at Southeast Raleigh High School. The Wake County school budget request has money set aside to change the magnet school theme at Southeast Raleigh High.
Joe Barley-Maloney teaches a tenth-grade American History II class on Aug. 4, 2014 at Southeast Raleigh High School. The Wake County school budget request has money set aside to change the magnet school theme at Southeast Raleigh High.

Wake County school leaders questioned the budget numbers county staff used to recommend providing the school system with only a third of the $45.2 million increase in local funding it wants this year.

Wake County Manager Jim Hartmann recommended Monday providing the school district with a $16 million increase in funding. He suggested the school board make up for the funding gap by using the $21 million in unused local funds the district could have left over after this year’s budget.

But on Tuesday, school finance staff questioned how county staff came up the projection of $21 million. In addition, school board member Jim Martin said Hartmann overstated that he’s recommending providing the school system with $2,630 per student.

Martin said Hartmann did not include in his calculations the more than 13,000 Wake charter school students projected this fall. Martin said counting the charter students lowers the per-pupil amount by $200.

“We’ve got to be able to sit down and agree on a set of numbers,” Martin said.

Dara Demi, a Wake spokeswoman, said Hartmann didn’t include them because the county has no way to project charter school students. But she said that including them would still lead to a record per-pupil amount for Wake.

County Commissioner Greg Ford, a former Wake principal, tweeted Tuesday that he’s contacting county staff with questions based on the school board discussion.

Tuesday’s discussion signaled how school officials may attempt to question Hartmann’s budget proposal in their effort to persuade the Wake County Board of Commissioners to provide more money. Commissioners declined to say Monday whether they support or oppose the plan, instead saying they want to hear from the public and school board members.

School board members said they asked for a record $45.2 million increase to help make Wake an exemplary district. The new money would pay for things such as hiring more school counselors and social workers, raising pay for bus drivers and starting new magnet school programs.

“What we’re asking for is really a drop of what we could be asking for,” said school board member Kathy Hartenstine.

This isn’t the first time a Wake county manager has asked the school system to use local money left over from previous years, but it is the first since Democrats gained control of the Board of Commissioners in 2014.

The school system, which doesn’t have its own taxing authority, accumulates savings during the school year by making changes such as shifting positions that would be paid from local dollars to state dollars and leaving some positions vacant.

Since 2007, school board policy has allowed the district to keep in reserve as much as 6 percent of the amount it receives from the county, with any excess returned to the county’s fund balance. The amount, according to school officials, was 3.6 percent as of June 30, 2016.

Mark Winters, the school district’s chief finance officer, said the system can’t budget based on the $21 million it might have at the end of the budget year. Instead, it’s using half of the $13.8 million in available reserves from last June to balance this year’s school budget.

Superintendent Jim Merrill said Hartmann told him the county would bail the district out if it needed help. But Merrill said he didn’t hear anything when the district initially faced having to deal with state cuts in class size.

“I’m not as confident that will be a solution,” Merrill said of help from the county.

School board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler says Wake County Manager Jim Hartmann overstated the amount of money he's recommending be given to the school system this year.

Commissioners gave the school system a record $44.6 million increase in 2015 and another $24 million last summer. Hartmann noted Monday that his plan would provide a 30 percent increase in school funding over four years.

Hartmann’s recommendation on school funding formed part of his $1.2 billion proposed budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. He said he couldn’t recommend more for schools because of competing needs such as public safety and the foster care system.

Hartmann’s plan would raise the property tax rate in Wake for the fourth year in a row. The increase of 1.45 cents would bump the property tax rate to 61.5 cents per $100 in valuation.

A typical property owner would pay an extra $39 in property taxes.

Commissioners plan to hold a public hearing on Hartmann’s proposal at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Monday, June 5, at the Wake County Justice Center in downtown Raleigh. School board members said commissioners need to hear why more school funding is needed.

“We’ve got gamesmanship going on,” Martin said. “We’ve got a need. We’ve got to find a way to pay for the need.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui