Politics & Government

Wake schools want $48 million more from county. They blame lack of state funding.

Wake County Manager David Ellis wants to increase school funding by $36.5 million this year. But Wake school leaders say that increase isn’t enough to meet the district’s needs.

The Wake County school board voted Tuesday to ask county commissioners for a record $48.3 million increase in local funding — $11.8 million more than what Ellis recommended Monday. School board members acknowledged that they’re asking for a large increase but said that they need the full 10% increase to address in part what they say is insufficient state funding.

“I get that there is a sticker shock associated with our needs,” said school board member Chris Heagarty, a former state lawmaker. “But that’s the result of underfunding those needs over the years.

“If our educational infrastructure hasn’t kept up with our growth, those needs are going to continue year after year.”

The next month will see a round of lobbying by school leaders and community supporters to persuade commissioners to come up with the additional $11.8 million. Public hearings on the county budget are set for 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 20.

Commissioners, who are already considering a 6.36-cent property tax rate increase recommended by Ellis, will vote on on the budget June 3.

“Clearly our ask is higher than what appeared in the county manager’s budget, and we need to acknowledge that,” said school board chairman Jim Martin. “That means we need to have continued conversations with our colleagues on the board of commissioners.”

Last year, commissioners provided a record $45 million increase to the school system. But the school board had asked for a $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 of $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 is proposing a 10% increase this year in county funding to get $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 say the largest reason for the budget 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 $7 million more to charter schools to deal with the expected increase in charter students.

The Republican-led state legislature has touted increased education funding, including in teacher pay. But Wake school board members say the spending growth hasn’t kept up with what was provided before the recession, when adjusted for inflation.

School board member Bill Fletcher said that the General Assembly isn’t living up to its state constitutional mandate to provide enough money to operate the public schools. Fletcher said that 100 counties have had to levy property taxes to pay for education personnel that the state should be funding.

“The issue is not with the county,” Fletcher said. “The issue is with the state and the annual reduction in the contribution of the state to what the Constitution says is a state-funded operation of the schools.”

The budget increase comes after Wake grew overall by only 42 students this year, the smallest increase in more than 30 years. The budget originally included a request for a $48.9 million increase, but that amount was adjusted after the county provided additional funding it had previously withheld due to the enrollment coming in less than planned.

Senate Republican leaders responded Wednesday by pointing to the record nearly $1 billion in state funding now being provided to the school district. Senate leaders say that state funding for the district is 40 percent higher than the last year of Democratic control in the legislature, and 31 percent higher than the largest allocation under Democratic control.

“The Wake County School Board is masking its own lack of discipline with the discredited and lazy accusation that the state legislature isn’t giving them enough money,” Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County who co-chairs the Senate budget committee, said in a news release. “They had 42 new students and received 27 million extra dollars last school year.

“The unfortunate residents that this school board is trying to tax into oblivion deserve to know just what exactly Wake County is spending all this money on.”

School leaders say that they now have the opportunity to address some areas that they couldn’t deal with in the past due to trying to keep up with growth.

Other budget increases include:

$8.2 million for the opening of new schools.

$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.

$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.

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

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

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