Politics & Government

Growth has slowed in Wake schools, but superintendent wants $48.9 million budget increase

Enrollment growth has dramatically slowed in Wake County, but Superintendent Cathy Moore said Tuesday that the school district needs $48.9 million more in local funding this year to meet the district’s needs.

After three decades of rapid growth, the Wake County school system only grew by 42 children this school year, with 559 more children projected this fall. Moore said Wake still has to pay for state-mandated increases while now dealing with issues that weren’t addressed in the past because of growth, such as more maintenance spending and higher salaries for support staff.

Moore is proposing a 10-percent increase in funding from the Wake County Board of Commissioners. She wants the county to provide $519 million of the school district’s $1.7 billion operating budget for the 2019-20 school year. Wake is North Carolina’s largest school system with 160,000 students.

School leaders acknowledged the growth slowdown on Tuesday. If the funding increase is provided by the commissioners, it would be the largest single-year increase provided to the school system.

“As you know, our enrollment growth was quite slow in 2018-19,” Moore said during the budget presentation. “If one were to consider only the overall enrollment, it would understandably lead to questions about the need for new schools.

“It would also overlook the fact that dozens of our schools exceed 100 percent capacity, nearly 1,000 classroom trailers are used each day and residential growth in western Wake County continued unabated. All of these factors help explain why four new schools are opening next year.”

Aside from paying $8.2 million for the new schools, Moore said the largest reason for the increase is the $19.6 million needed to cover costs to meet state requirements.

Wake has to fund state-mandated K-3 class size reductions and the district’s share of projected pay increases to teachers. Wake also has to pass along more money to charter schools, which are expected to more than double the district’s enrollment growth this fall.

“Seven million of that $19 million is just to make charter school payments that we will be required to make under state statute,” said David Neter, Wake’s chief operating officer. “That’s funding that we’re asking from the county.

“Theoretically it comes to the Wake County Public School System but it’s not available for our use. It goes right back out to the charter schools.”

Other budget increases include:

Providing $3.8 million more for the first year of a five-year plan to increase salaries for custodians, child nutrition workers, bus drivers and skilled laborers such as fleet mechanics, HVAC technicians and clerical staff.

Provide $3.7 million more for the final year of a multi-year plan to provide pay raises to teachers who do extra duties such as coach athletic teams.

Provide $2.8 million more for special-education services, including transportation assistants and contracts for transportation services and paying for pre-school teachers and assistants.

Provide $2.5 million for the first year of a five-year plan to address a backlog of deferred maintenance needs, such as reparing heating and cooling systems.

“It is accurate to think of it as needs that went unaddressed while we chased the rapid enrollment growth of previous years,” Moore said.

The budget could put county commissioners in a bind. They’re already starting the budget cycle knowing that property taxes will go up for the sixth year in a row, this time to pay off the $1 billion in school, Wake Tech and parks bonds approved by voters in November.

County staff say that they’ve built in a $19.2 million increase in school funding in their budget projections. It would likely require raising taxes to provide the $48.9 million proposed by the superintendent.

Last year, commissioners provided a record $45 million increase to the school system. But the school board had asked for $58.9 million increase from from the county.

School officials said the combination of not getting all they wanted from the county and unanticipated changes in the state budget resulted in last year’s budget shortfall to $25.5 million. This caused the school system to take steps such as raising the parking fee for students, reducing the amount of raises for teachers and requiring some teachers to change schools to keep their jobs.

The school board will need to vote on the budget before sending it to commissioners. But board members praised Moore on Tuesday and said it was a reasonable budget request given the district’s needs.

“While some may see it as being somewhat aggressive, I think it is appropriately moving us forward and trying to do our best to keep pace with the needs and things we have given the constraints,” said school board vice chairman Keith Sutton.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer