In 2011, voters turned out a Republican majority on the Wake County school board. They did the same in November with the county Board of Commissioners.
By voting out four Republicans and voting in four Democrats, residents signaled a weariness with the GOP-run board’s ongoing criticism and tightfisted funding of the Wake schools.
There was little room for vision, for ambition, for investment in the state’s largest school district with 155,000 students.
Now, schools Superintendent Jim Merrill aims to make up for the previous negligence with a request for $48.3 million more in local funding. He has asked the commissioners for a 14 percent budget increase, a total of $389.8 million.
It’s uncertain how much of a property tax increase would be needed to grant Merrill’s request.
What is certain is the need.
“I make this request without apology,” Merrill said.
Merrill already has made it a top priority to gradually raise pay for Wake teachers to the national average of $56,000 a year, from its current level of $49,597. That is neither a misguided goal nor an unreachable one. But it will cost money.
And such an increase would enable the county covering the Capital City, with hopes of recruiting new businesses the likes of Red Hat and SAS, to compete for the best teachers. North Carolina, as a state, ranks far too low on the national scale as it stands.
Obviously, it’s in the state’s interest to do more, to boost teacher pay beyond what Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican lawmakers did with raises for beginning teachers.
Unfortunately, the sentiments toward public education are unpredictable in the Republican-led legislature. And legislators last year changed budget law so that the state no longer will automatically pay for increases in a given district’s school population. That means school systems won’t know whether they will get those increases until the state budget goes through.
Merrill is asking commissioners to step up to ensure he and the schools can hang on to good teachers and hire more good ones.
Consider, if doubt is raised as to need, these figures: In the 2008-09 school year, Wake schools were getting $2,178 per student from the county and $9,092 overall. Now, the figure is $2,085 from the county and $8,856 overall. At a time when the demands on teachers are greater than ever, when the public schools must meet the mission of giving students from a variety of backgrounds the same quality education, spending is actually down?
Merrill is seeking salary increases for all employees at all levels of the system. Any parent who has spent time in a school knows how important staff members are. Many connect with and know students as well as teachers do.
And the superintendent also wants to invest in expanding pre-kindergarten programs for children from low-income families and to provide more help for elementary schools with high poverty levels.
Investment in public education is just that. It’s not something to withhold to make political points as the previous Republican commissioners tended to do.
Times have changed, thankfully. A new era of the school board and the commissioners working together has begun. Progress is being made, and more is sought. It will require boldness from elected officials and sacrifice from taxpayers. But it will be worth it, and it is overdue.