Wake Ed

Budget fight causes loss of trust between Wake County school board and commissioners

Relations were better between the Wake County school board and Wake County Board of Commissioners when they held this joint meeting at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Jan. 26, 2015.
Relations were better between the Wake County school board and Wake County Board of Commissioners when they held this joint meeting at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Jan. 26, 2015. cseward@newsobserver.com

In just two years, Wake County school board members have gone from talking about a new era of cooperation with commissioners to saying there’s a lack of trust between both boards.

The difference in the two feelings comes from how the Wake County Board of Commissioners provided a record $44.6 million school funding increase in 2015 compared to a $21 million boost this year. While the 2015 increase provided nearly all the school board had requested, this year’s amount is less than half the requested school budget increase.

The nonpartisan school board, which has a Democratic majority, had welcomed the election of a Democratic majority to the commissioners after the 2014 election. Commissioners have raised the annual amount provided to the school system by $90 million since 2015. But the 30-percent budget increase hasn’t been enough for the school board.

Compare the comments made by school board members who were also in office in 2015. In both cases, the school board was reacting to the adoption of the county budget the day before.

“We appreciate the work and the collaboration with the county commissioners,” school board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said in June 2015. “And how they really showed up in support, for me both not just their words but their actions last night, by passing the school budget.”

But on June 20, Johnson-Hostler, who is now the board chairwoman, was talking about how the school district is now facing a $24 million budget shortfall.

“When curve balls come because they come regularly – several yesterday – we roll with the punches,” Johnson-Hostler said. “Apparently we roll with the punches so well that it appears that we actually don’t need a lot of help.

“But I would dare say we need a lot of help and we need the entire community to be a part of reminding us how much help we need.”

School board member Bill Fletcher had worn what he called his “cooperation tie” to the June 21, 2015 board meeting.

“I’ve worn this before in hopes that we would have cooperation with our county commission,” Fletcher said two years ago. “I’m wearing it today by the demonstrated cooperation and collaboration that we have with our other elected body in the county as well as our staffs.

“I want to give a shout-out to both our superintendent and county manager for their working together. In our meetings with commissioners and staff, I believe there’s a greater understanding of what both of us bring to the table, of our responsibilities and how they are not necessarily the same but how they complement each other.

“I see that as a very positive foundation for how we move forward as a community to provide the services that we need.”

Two years later, Fletcher was faulting county staff and commissioners for how they were saying the school system didn’t need as large an increase because it didn’t spend all the local money it was receiving.

“There were some things said during this budget cycle that at least bordered on the edge of calling our staff incompetent or untruthful, and I reject that categorically,” Fletcher said at the June 20 work session. “I have extreme confidence in the people who’ve been serving us for more than 20 years each in budget and finance, and I have no reason to believe there’s anything in our financial reporting and our budgeting and our budget request that is anything other than above board, on the table with all the numbers adding up the what they’re supposed to.

“So I want to express a note of confidence in our staff for what they have presented and the challenge of maintaining a positive attitude with some of the comments coming from other folks who’ve been elected to serve our community, so thank you very much.”

During board member comments at the regular meeting later that day, Fletcher held his tongue.

“I won’t say anything derogatory about our friends downtown,” Fletcher said. “I’ll end, otherwise I’ll get in trouble.”

In June 2015, then-school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner gave her “sincere appreciation of the commissioners’ vote yesterday and the commission’s renewed and productive focus on public schools.”

“I feel there’s real momentum in this community as reflected yesterday to support our schools, our students and our teachers,” she added.

In June 2017, Kushner reserved her appreciation for people who spoke in favor of the school budget and for Commissioners Greg Ford and Jessica Holmes, who unsuccessfully lobbied for more than a $21 million increase.

“We continue the work,” Kushner said. “I want to in particular thank Commissioners Ford and Holmes, who are the two commissioners with education backgrounds, who did advocate for additional funding. So I want to appreciate those two in particular this evening.”

In 2015, school board member Jim Martin joined his colleagues in thanking the commissioners for the budget.

“But more excited than the numbers, I was pleased with the discussion that said we need to work at a different structure of budgeting that does long-term planning,” Martin said. “We’ve got to get past this year-by-year kind of last minute and start really putting long-term plans into place, which is what we’re going to need to do to carry out things like the strategic plan.”

But Martin, a professor at N.C. State University, also said in 2015 he wanted to see what commissioners would do in future years.

“I guess it’s the professor in me that says, ‘Very good, you got a good grade on exam one. There’s several more exams before the final,’ ” Martin said. “ ‘Congratulations on exam one. I want to see a great final exam.’ 

Two years later, Martin said commissioners were only providing the school board with the equivalent of 2010 funding, when adjusted for growth and inflation.

“I’ve never heard Wake County celebrate being status quo and I don’t plan to do so,” Martin said. “I want to be better than status quo.”

In 2016, both boards had agreed to switch to a rolling seven-year plan to cover the school district’s building needs. Martin said that questions commissioners have raised about the district’s numbers in the building program make him question whether they can agree on a long-term plan for funding the operating budget.

“When we talking about going for rolling 3-yearish plans for operating, are we going to have that questioned as well?” Martin said. “Do we have the trust and confidence that if we get a long-term rolling plan that it would actually be agreed to like I thought we had for our seven-year capital plan?”

Martin repeatedly said that “trust is built, it is not merely given” between both boards.

Martin also used a football analogy to criticize the county for not factoring charter school students into the budget total and for questioning the school district for saving money to help build up its reserves.

“If you attack the school system only for the fund balance, ignoring your own fund balance, ignoring other parts of the county’s fund balance, you are running the ball in the other direction,” Martin said. “I’m sorry we need a coach who is going to take both of us to task, make us work better.

“We’ve got to communicate better, but for God’s sake let’s not run the ball toward our opponent’s goal.”