Education

Wake County schools warn that severe cuts will be needed to close $23.9 million budget gap

Sanderson High School senior Cody Ellison makes a pitch for a hypothetical pizza restaurant during a business class at the school in Raleigh n May 30, 2018.  Wake County school leaders say they may have to take steps such as raising class sizes and reducing the number of classes offered to students in order to close a $23.9 million budget gap.
Sanderson High School senior Cody Ellison makes a pitch for a hypothetical pizza restaurant during a business class at the school in Raleigh n May 30, 2018. Wake County school leaders say they may have to take steps such as raising class sizes and reducing the number of classes offered to students in order to close a $23.9 million budget gap.

A day after not getting all they wanted from Wake County commissioners, school leaders warned Tuesday that they might need to make severe budget cuts to close a $23.9 million budget gap.

Commissioners voted Monday to give the school board $45 million of the $58.9 million increase it requested this year. School leaders said Tuesday that this year's budget gap has now reached nearly $24 million, because of unanticipated changes in the state budget. That gap will lead to "significant" and painful cuts that will affect school employees and families.

"Our community, I think, is going to be very surprised at what their children are not going to receive in services when we end up taking that red pen and it's gone," school board member Kathy Hartenstine said during Tuesday's budget discussion.

In an email sent Tuesday to Wake's 19,000 school employees, school board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler warned that balancing the budget could require assigning some employees to different positions.

Other potential cuts she mentioned include reducing bus service to families, eliminating classroom choices, increasing class sizes after third grade and reducing custodial services. Johnson-Hostler said other options will be reviewed.

"We are sharing this information now, as some staff reassignments and program reductions likely will be needed to balance our budget," Johnson-Hostler said in the email.

School staff will present recommendations on which cuts to make within the next two weeks. The school board has to adopt a budget by June 30 but could pass an interim budget until a final decision is made.

The school system asked commissioners for a record $58.9 million increase, $48 million of which school officials said is just to maintain the current level of services to the 160,000-student district. Wake is North Carolina's largest school district.

School board members thanked commissioners Tuesday for giving more than the $30.1 million increase that was originally recommended by County Manager David Ellis.

"A $45 million addition to the budget is a whole lot better than $30 million would have been," said school board vice chairman Jim Martin.

In the email to school employees, Johnson-Hostler shifted the blame to state lawmakers, saying the decisions they've made in the past several years "have significantly increased costs to local taxpayers while reducing our overall budget flexibility."

In addition to the county funding shortfall, school staff said they'll also need an additional $9.9 million to make up for the impact of the state budget. A large part of that extra money comes from Wake's share of paying local raises to match higher-than-expected state raises for teachers this year.

Chief Business Officer David Neter said the result is a $23.9 million funding shortfall that the school board will need to close. With more than 80 percent of the district's $1.7 billion operating budget going to pay people, he said the cuts will affect school employees.

Unlike in past budget years, the school system's reserves have been depleted and can't close the gap.

The school system in recent years has closed budget shortfalls by taking steps such as reducing how often schools are cleaned, raising class sizes, changing school temperature settings and raising the amount charged for student parking passes.

"Our service level is going to go down. Period," said Hartenstine, the board member. "I keep seeing the faces of children who will not get what they need."

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