Should Wake County change the way it pays for schools?

In December 2015, construction workers scrambled to complete Oakview Elementary School in Holly Springs, built with funds from an $810 million bond issue approved by voters in 2013.
In December 2015, construction workers scrambled to complete Oakview Elementary School in Holly Springs, built with funds from an $810 million bond issue approved by voters in 2013. 2015 News & Observer file photo

Wake County schools could ask for up to $47 million in additional local money as county commissioners push to change the way they dole out dollars to the school system.

Some Wake commissioners want to move away from annual budget negotiations with the school board and switch to a multiyear funding formula that they say could eliminate some of the guesswork in funding school operations.

Commissioner Erv Portman, for one, says he has grown weary of the yearly spat between his board and the school board. “I think the budget process is kind of a repeat of a movie that ends badly,” he said. “Every year, I see the same movie played out, and I think we can do better than that.”

School boards in North Carolina don’t have taxing authority, so they depend on county commissioners to give them money for things the state doesn’t fund, such as school construction and supplemental teacher pay. The setup often leads to tense exchanges as school leaders push for more money and commissioners say they must consider other needs, including parks, transit and the county jail.

Last year, Wake commissioners gave schools less than half of a requested $45.2 million increase, a decision that strained relations between the two Democrat-led boards. (The total Wake schools budget is $1.6 billion.)

This year’s budget process is still in the early stages. But Monika Johnson-Hostler, chairwoman of the school board, is calling for a joint meeting of the two boards before March.

Johnson-Hostler said she supports a plan that would guarantee money for schools, but she expects the devil to be in the details. “Is there a process that we can put in place that gets us at the basic level?” she said. “How do we come to some base-level agreement?”

Even if school and county leaders agree on a funding formula and multiyear spending plan, commissioners should expect school board members to regularly seek additional funding, Johnson-Hostler said. The schools will no doubt need additional dollars to meet new state and federal mandates, and they will sometimes want more money to launch new programs to better serve children, she said.

“There will always be a plus,” Johnson-Hostler said, referring to a request on top of what the funding formula calls for.

Funding formulas for schools are in place elsewhere in North Carolina. Years ago in Johnston County, school and county leaders agreed on a per-pupil dollar amount for school operations. The total amount available every year grows by the rate of inflation and the number of new students.

Erv Portman

Other counties have similar formulas.

“I look to Cumberland County, where they have decided that the fighting between the two boards doesn’t serve the kids very well,” Portman said.

He has support among his fellow commissioners.

“Establishing a formula that is fair and a process that is transparent will go far in providing both boards and staff with the consistency and predictability they need to effectively plan for future budgets,” said Commissioner Greg Ford, a former teacher and principal in Wake County. “I see this simply as a responsibility of good government, and the Board of Commissioners has made this work one of our top priorities for 2018.”

He added: “As a freshman commissioner last year, I was surprised to learn that no real funding formula or agreement has ever existed in Wake beyond meeting the minimal requirements required by state statutes. This lack of a base funding formula and absence of a clear process for addressing the school district’s annual expansion requests have resulted in unpredictable and inconsistent county allocations over the years.”

Jessica Holmes, chairwoman of the commissioners, said she would back a multiyear spending formula “as long as it has public input, is agreed upon by both boards and provides a level of predictability for taxpayers.”

“Funding our schools is my top priority,” Holmes said. “That said, it’s also our responsibility to maintain our AAA bond rating and ensure that human services and public safety departments have necessary resources in place to serve our most vulnerable populations and keep us safe and healthy. Additionally, we are implementing affordable housing and transit plans. We have several priorities to balance while being cognizant of voter fatigue when it comes to raising taxes.”

Portman said he suspects Wake County taxpayers would welcome the change. “I think that’s what the citizens of Wake County expect, and they’re tired too of the budget fight they hear every year,” he said.

Portman added that schools might find they benefit more from a set formula. “I think a multiyear plan will challenge commissioners to find the money to make it work,” he said. “If we can agree on the needs, it’s relatively easy to agree on the funding.”

Time to talk

Communication between the two boards can be better, both sides say.

“Our boards have to do a better job of communication with each other directly,” Holmes said. “There are times when we learn of budget considerations via the media as opposed to getting a call from our colleagues.”

Monika Johnson-Hostler

Johnson-Hostler pledged better communication with Holmes, her counterpart on the county board. “I’m committed to being open with her about what we anticipate our needs to be,” she said.

As of this week, Wake has a new county manager – David Ellis, who has served as deputy manager since 2015. Ellis said Monday that he wants to improve the relationship between county commissioners and school board members.

Meanwhile, the school board is searching for a new superintendent. Del Burns, a former Wake superintendent, is serving as interim superintendent until a new leader is hired this summer, probably after the budget season.

Portman said it’s important to remember that a smaller-than-requested increase is not a spending cut, as some critics would have people believe. “I think people are tired of those kinds of games,” he said. “It’s misleading and confusing to voters.”

And he dismissed any notion that he doesn’t support public education. “I have four daughters, and three of them are teachers,” he said.

Scott Bolejack: 919-829-4629, @ScottBolejack

Schools’ spending request could grow again

Wake County school leaders say they need additional county money in 2018-19. The acting superintendent has not yet made his recommendation to the school board.

▪ $10 million-$11 million – for growth in enrollment and operating costs for two new elementary schools, one new middle school and one new high school.

▪ $9 million-$10 million – for special-education programs. School leaders say they have exhausted funding reserves used over the years to help meet special-education needs.

▪ $15 million-$16 million – mostly to cover higher pay and benefits for locally paid school system employees.

▪ $4 million-$6 million – for new and expanded programs, including social and emotional learning, a curriculum designed to give students the “skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

▪ $8 million – decrease in fund balance to support beginning budget.

Together, those numbers add up to $46 million to $51 million, but savings elsewhere in the budget bring the total to $43 million to $47 million.

Source: Wake County schools