Education

School leaders want 'stunning' $58.9 million increase from Wake County taxpayers this year

First-graders (from left) Vanessa Mendez-Moreno, Lilah Morgan and Blake Ward work on art projects in Jennifer McIntyre’s art class at Timber Drive Elementary School in Garner on March 2, 2017.
First-graders (from left) Vanessa Mendez-Moreno, Lilah Morgan and Blake Ward work on art projects in Jennifer McIntyre’s art class at Timber Drive Elementary School in Garner on March 2, 2017. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Wake County taxpayers could face their fifth consecutive year of property tax hikes if school leaders get their way for a record $58.9 million increase in local funding this year.

On Tuesday, Wake County schools interim Superintendent Del Burns said the district needs a 14 percent increase in local funding to maintain current service levels and to add counselors, social workers and psychologists. He said the extra money is needed from the Wake County Board of Commissioners because the district is at a "financial crossroads."

"Should the budget needs identified here not be funded, the district will survive," Burns told school board members. "But the Wake County Public School System I have known for more than four decades is not about surviving. It has never been enough to just carry on.

"This is a community driven to excel. I would be remiss if I did not bring you a budget proposal that makes that possible."

Burns' $1.7 billion proposed operating budget for the 2018-19 school year — which includes a request of $489.8 million from the county — now goes to the school board for review. Budget information can be found at www.wcpss.net/budget.

The previous record increase from the county was $44.6 million given in 2015.

School board members acknowledged it won't be easy persuading commissioners to provide $58.9 million.

"There is no doubt a number like that sitting on a piece of paper is absolutely stunning to anyone who reads it, including those of us who know what the needs are," school board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said in an interview.

The new school budget could test the ability of the school board and county commissioners, which both have Democratic majorities, to build a foundation of trust to try to reduce clashes over education funding.

Commissioners have increased annual school funding by $89.5 million since 2015. But the past two years, the school board has complained that it's gotten less than what it needed from the county.

In 2016, the school board got $23.9 million of the $35.7 million increase it wanted. It led to the school board making cuts such as reducing how often schools are cleaned.

Last year, the school board got $21 million of the $45.2 million increase it requested. School board members cut back on new programs such as a plan to spend $10 million to hire additional school counselors and social workers.

At a joint meeting last month, both boards agreed a better budgeting process is needed. The boards plan to hold a joint meeting in May to discuss the school budget request.

Burns said nearly $48 million of the proposed increase is needed to maintain current levels of service for students. That includes opening four new schools, matching the local share of projected increases in state employee retirement and hospitalization costs, losing federal special-education funding and phasing in smaller state-mandated K-3 class size changes.

Of the $48 million, school officials say $19.5 million is because of state-mandated changes.

In terms of the $11 million for new programs, Burns said the majority would cover things that weren't funded last year, such as school counselors, social workers and psychologists.

Johnson-Hostler, the board chairwoman, said some members were upset that the budget didn't include even more new items.

"It's our job and due diligence to put forward what the district needs," she said.

Chief Business Officer David Neter said staff members are working on budget adjustments in case they get less than they want from commissioners.

But Burns and Neter warned that the district can't tap into its reserves heavily this year to make up for budget shortfalls. They said the district is down to less than $5 million in reserves — less than the amount it takes to run the district for one day.

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