A longstanding argument among Wake County leaders reared its head again Monday. Jim Hartmann, the Wake County manager, told county commissioners that the Wake school system hasn't spent all of the money it got from county coffers in the current budget year and thus doesn't need the $45 million in new funding it requested for the coming year. This wasn't the first time the county had raised the issue of unspent funds the school board tends to carry over from year to year.
Instead, Hartmann proposed during a meeting of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, the school system should be able to meet its needs with an additional $16 million from the county, combined with what he described as a $21 million fund balance.
"They've shown a history of having about twenty million dollars that they don't spend," Johnna Rogers, deputy county manager and chief financial officer, told the INDY. "They were able to do things more efficiently or use more state money."
Hartmann proposed an overall county budget of $1.24 billion, an increase of $38.3 million over the current budget year, which ends June 30. The budget contains a property tax increase of 1.45 cents per $100 of assessed value, roughly $39 annually for a house with the average Wake value of $270,000. The schools' budget proposal alone would have required an increase of about four cents.
Increases for public safety in the budget included $1.6 million for pay raises and $2.3 million for inmates' outpatient medical care, a cost unloaded on the county by state legislators.
Under the state's setup, school systems have no taxing power, so the boards that oversee public education have to request funding from county commissions. Hartmann made the case that Wake schools would get a good deal under his plan, receiving a 3.9 percent increase over the current year to reach county funding of $425.9 million and local per-pupil funding of $2,453, the highest in Wake County history.
"In each of the past three years, tax increases were implemented to achieve these results," Hartmann told commissioners. "In each of those years, I wrestled with the decision to recommend a property tax increase, and I have wrestled with the decision again this year."
The moment did not represent a happy déjà vu for Lynn Edmonds, a longtime public schools advocate and program coordinator for the nonprofit group Great Schools in Wake. Edmonds was disappointed that board members didn't speak up against Hartmann's plan. She said the occasion reminded her of the days when Republican commissioners including Tony Gurley, Paul Coble, and Joe Bryan also argued that schools should use leftover dollars in the next budget year instead of as a protection against emergencies.
"It's Gurley and Coble and Bryan in different suits," Edmonds says. "It's way off. It's not even fifty percent of the request."
Hartmann noted in his budget presentation that the schools typically use state funds first, a practice he applauded. However, he objected to the system's practice of maintaining unused funds from year to year.
"Given that how much money spent in one year should have a direct correlation in how the next year's budget is developed, I must consider the school system's actual results and use of recurring funding in evaluating the school system's request," Hartmann said. "I do this in the same manner as I evaluate county departments' requests. Funds unused from prior-year appropriations should be considered in building a budget request before asking for new dollars, particularly if a tax increase is required."
Schools superintendent Jim Merrill wasn't available for comment Monday night, but a section of his proposed budget spells out the rationale: "The board of education maintains [the fund balance] to address emergency funding needs and other generally one-time costs not included in the annual budget," the section says. "In addition, the board of education may use [the fund balance] as a funding source for the annual budget."
It's hard to pin down the potential impact of a lower appropriation. The school board's request included specifics such as increased numbers of counselors, teacher pay raises, and funds to meet the modified class-size requirements in lower grades, which will begin taking effect in the 2017–18 school year.
The board of commissioners can adopt Hartmann's proposed budget or modify it. In any case, commissioners don't specify how the schools should adapt to receiving less than their requested amount.
School board members were to discuss Hartmann's proposal during a three p.m. work session scheduled for Tuesday afternoon at Wake County Public Schools headquarters in Cary, after the INDY went to press. Members of the board of commissioners did not appear united behind the plan after Hartmann presented it.
"This is the county manager's proposal," board member Jessica Holmes said pointedly.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Money in the Bank."