Wake Ed

General Assembly blamed for Wake County school budget woes

Wake County school leaders and school supporters are trying to portray the state as the bad guy for putting the district in the situation where it may ask for a $48.3 million local funding increase.

During Tuesday’s school board work session and budget public hearing, the General Assembly was repeatedly accused of not providing enough funding to help North Carolina’s largest school district meet its needs. Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill has proposed asking the Wake County Board of Commissioners for $48.3 million more – $27 million of it for pay raises for employees, traditionally a responsibility of the state.

On one side is a a largely liberal Democratic school board and its supporters. On the other side is a largely conservative Republican-led state legislature.

“The elephant in the room with this budget is the county picking up a significant amount of the state’s responsibilities – and that is salaries,” school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said during the budget work session. “The bottom line is that we can increase instructional supplies, we can increase programs, we can do studies to look at equity issues, but if we don’t take the steps to maintain a highly qualified, highly trained staff, none of that is going to do us any good.

“We can build the best schools in the state, but if we don’t take steps to maintain a high-quality staff, then all of those are show.”

Benton said there is a crisis situation with teachers and that the question isn’t why Wake is stepping up, but why the state is not. The General Assembly has raised pay for new and less experienced teachers, but has been criticized for trying to take away career status, also called tenure, and not doing as much to raise pay for veteran educators.

“I’m hoping that when people do question the amount of the request – and that with 50 percent of it approximately being in salaries – that they understand the predicament that the state has put Wake County in,” Benton said. “Thank goodness we’re in a county that might can do something about that.”

The theme was picked up by several speakers at the school board’s budget public hearing. In addition to railing against the state, they pledged to show up at the June 1 budget public hearings scheduled by the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

While the commissioners are now all Democrats, the prospect of raising taxes to prove a record $48.3 million increase in school funding is giving them pause.

Angela Scioli, a social studies teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, brought Tuesday the signatures of more than 100 teachers and staff at the school showing their support for the school budget. Scioli said she’d bring those signatures when commissioners hear from the public about the budget on June 1.

“We will be letting them know that we are in full support of your efforts and consider this to be a rare opportunity to right some of the wrongs of recent state legislation related to funding and pay,” Scioli said. “I only wish every county in our state could share our good fortune of having elected progressive, forward-thinking officials who know the importance of public education and the role it plays in ensuring our American meritocracy and democracy.”

Larry Nilles, president of WAKE NCAE, blamed Wake’s school budget woes on state legislators “who have made intentional decisions to underfund our public schools to force people like you to make decisions like this so that they can keep their jobs and they can get their friends elected when they change the rules of the game.”

“This is our chance to push back against a destructive and deliberate agenda,” Nilles said. “I know you all want to do it. I think you can and we’ll all be there with you on June 1st when we have to beg that other board for the money.”

Other speakers at the budget hearing include people who’ve attended Moral Monday rallies against the General Assembly and who’ve filed lawsuits challenging the legislature’s new election maps for the Wake school board and commissioners.