Wake schools look to an ambitious future

Keith Sutton did a term as chairman of the Wake County school board at a contentious time, when Republican county commissioners seemed to delight in barbed criticisms of the school board, even to the point of trying to rob school officials of some of their authority over property purchases.

But Sutton, still a board member, now has a new audience when he talks to commissioners about the future of public education in Wake County. Four new Democratic commissioners, along with three Democratic incumbents, are strong supporters of the schools and recognize the incomparable contribution Wake schools have made to the county, including to its recruitment of new industry.

Sutton's latest suggestion, made in a meeting last week with the school board and commissioners in attendance, is for a task force to study the impact growth is having on schools and the needs that growth will create. It is a superb idea.

Sutton would have a task force with members from the business community, with planners from public agencies, with elected officials from the county and from cities and towns within it. Parents also would be included.

Sutton noted that, in the past, conversations about the impact of growth were often intensified only when a bond issue was being considered. The task force would have the opportunity to monitor schools all along the way. It would be an opportunity to forecast what needs might be coming.

New residents keep coming

Commissioners will likely be agreeable. They have the say, after all, over the public purse and thus the school budget. And this group of commissioners - already inclined to move ahead with giving voters the opportunity to vote for a small tax to finance looking at the future of light rail, commuter rail and expanded bus service with neighboring counties - has demonstrated foresight.

Wake is gaining about 62 people a day and nearly 3,000 new students annually for the state's largest school system. So the question is not whether to have growth, but how to make it orderly, and how to provide the range of service new residents, new neighborhoods and new schools need.

At the same time creating this task force is being considered, the school board separately is pondering a "wish list" of school needs. And, yes, it's more appropriate to call them "needs" than "wants."

Focus on teacher pay

One item on the list would have Wake County's 10,500 teachers reach the national average for teacher pay by 2018, with some more funding this year as the first step. Wake pays a nice supplement to meager state pay already, but the average Wake salary of roughly $50,000 is far below the national average of $56,000.

How long can the county - and the state, for that matter - expect to get by on the cheap when it comes to teachers' salaries?

School officials also would like to see money for supplies at each high school to ensure that science classes could do hands-on experiments. It is likely taken for granted by many parents that such is the case now, but it is not. Some schools struggle to provide the minimum, but it's stating the obvious to say that if a science class is going to prepare students for higher learning, experiments need to be thorough and real.

There also needs to be more investment in schools that are struggling, and having student health centers in each high school is again something that should be viewed as a necessity. Among other benefits, such centers might prevent the spread of flu and other illnesses that can sweep through a school population quickly.

And Wake school officials would like to see funding for enrollment growth restored. Astoundingly, the county is getting about $500 less per student in its operating budget for enrollment growth than it was getting five years ago.

Ambitious? Perhaps. But this isn't dreaming. It's reality.