- A satellite view of Wildwood Forest Elementary in Raleigh. Originally built seven years ago to help offload crowding at Fox Road, Wildwood is now surrounded by newly built communities with their own children looking to get in.
As May melts into June, I glance up at the calendar and notice that we've come to the end of another school year. Or have we, in light of the year-round school talk? The inexorable challenge of keeping up with the Triangle's unrelenting population growth, especially in Wake County, has long been a major issue for those with a vested interest in the local school systems.
Sure, there are the predictable annual flare-ups of parochial concern, guaranteed to coincide with the announcement of yet another school reassignment program. Like clockwork, those events elicit a yearly outburst of temporary activism from p.o.ed parents from either the sending or receiving districts. School policy stalwarts seize the stage, however fleeting, knowing how hard it is to engage the broader citizenry when the issues are as, well, boring as the intersection of growth management and strategic fiscal and educational policy. The media is used to the drill, also. They could almost replay the film on loop, with tight shots zoomed in on the obligatory handful of picketers, occasionally interspersing footage of an angry public speaker or three at a school board meeting.
Actually, I like the video clips from the board meetings. They have a surreal quality in this post-American Idol world, and I enjoy watching the concerned parents trying to get off a zinger while the news crews are rolling. It's Vogonesque, like the worst poetry reading in the universe, a veritable open mic night of the damned:
growing crowded ... growing, grow-ing ...
gone. from quaint sub-metropolis on the rise, to
big-city problems we thought we'd left when we
we load and reload buses,
they come and go and it's
never ... enough, and I know the
problems are, like, totally big and complicated
and stuff, but I don't care
county politics and budgets and such
pale in comparison to my personal need
for [insert precious child's name for personal effect]
to go to school with [his/her] friends.
This year, however, is a bit different. Those reassignment squabbles inevitably subside, the flash and boom fading to black like fireworks into the summer night. Every few years, the issues are placed back in front of us in the form of school bond referenda, and that fires up a few more folks than the reassignment talk. But this year's school money drama has shaped up to seem more like a wildfire threatening to burn out of control after the school board served notice that the budget situation has gotten so dire that we will likely need a combination of a massive tax hike and the switching over of the majority of schools to a modified calendar.
For those just tuning in to this drama, here's a very simplified rundown of the problem. Wake County has continued to endure significant growth for over a decade, with no signs of slowing down any time soon. Per capita spending for education, given a stable population, would probably suffice for meeting the basic needs of our children. Unfortunately (from a school funding perspective), our population is anything but stable, and while taxes pay for the ongoing costs of educating a child, they do not, at the current rates, adequately cover the sizeable upfront costs, chiefly school construction, involved in educating newcomers to the area.
So if little Jimmy and Jimmette cost the county $2,000 apiece per year to educate, even if their parents come in and immediately start paying $4,000 in taxes to cover that ongoing cost, we haven't dealt with the cost of the new school that they will need to attend. Without any direct mechanism for recouping even a bit of that upfront cost (cough impact fees cough), the county is dependent upon borrowing the money upfront to build the new school for these kids, and hoping to be able to pay off the debt with future revenues.
If that weren't a tough enough assignment, consider that the school board does not have taxing authority, and has to rely on the largesse of the Board of County Commissioners. The major influence in county politics around here has traditionally been the real estate developers who, coincidentally, are the ones who profit from the continued high growth of the area. Yep. These would be the same developers who, in aggregate, completely box in any newly built schools with even more newly built subdivisions, which almost always ensure that the new schools are over capacity on opening day. A lovely side effect, making the vicious circle more vicious, is that spiraling real estate costs make it increasingly difficult for the school board to even proactively buy land on which to build schools to satisfy its ever-expanding (numerically and geographically) population.
According to the recently released report by the Blue Ribbon Committee on the Future of Wake County, there is a projected $11.7 billion funding gap for education--alone--through the year 2030. That's a 12-billion-dollar delta between what we will have if both our revenue and our growth rates stay the same. And you think kids come home with a lot of fund-raisers now. With no changes, somewhere around 2025 or so, the children will have to switch from wrapping paper, chocolates and bulbs to something more lucrative, like, say, arms sales. I'm heartbroken already at the thought of having to turn the neighbor kids down, saying, "I'm sorry, I already bought a BlackHawk Attack Helicopter from my daughter. How 'bout I just buy a couple of Sidewinder Missiles to help you out, mmkay?"
The prospect of the county population swelling from its current 750,000 to 1,490,000 in 2030 (with the school population growing from its current 120,000 to a projected 280,000 over the same interval) is so alarming that the school board has done the equivalent of pushing the big, red button. They've simultaneously suggested that most schools will have to be flipped to a year-round or modified (i.e., "almost year-round") calendar, and that we will have to absorb massive tax increases just to keep pace with the minimum needs.
The controversy surrounding both of those options is what ensures that these issues will stay at the forefront of our local concerns, even while school adjourns. Already, the no-tax crowd is firing off salvos. The Blue Ribbon Committee was certainly the work of no wide-eyed liberals, containing representation across the political spectrum and including a number of notable conservatives. One of their ranks, Robert Luddy, was allowed to voice a dissent from the document's general conclusions in the form of an included Minority Report in which he rails against the notion that taxes will have to be raised in order to maintain quality education in the face of the growth juggernaut.
Luddy enthusiastically cosigns an opinion from an apparently long-lost cousin of mine, Jason Jennings, who states that "high quality and low cost are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they go hand-in-hand. Less is more." Nice to know cousin Jason is doing well. I'd kinda lost touch since he went away to Wal-Mart University on scholarship.
In the interest of disclosure, I can empathize somewhat with Mr. Luddy regarding the need for the school board to be creative in reducing costs as much as possible. In fact, I'm chagrinned that they have thus far ignored a suggestion that I made almost a decade ago: bunk desks. That would save on kids rocking back in their chairs, too, incidentally. They've only gotta fall once to learn their lesson.
What's depressing about all of this to me is what it reaffirms about our national and local priorities. Trailer parks are now de rigueur at most schools that I encounter, with almost a quarter of our elementary school population in "modular buildings." I bet if little Jimmy or Jimmette grows up and chooses crime as a vocation--considering it's one of the few career paths where we can guarantee that there will be active mentoring and recruitment available to them--we'll have no qualms in building them a nice, sturdy, brick and mortar structure.
That we even have to have these discussions, living, as we do, in proximity to one of the major economic engines of the United States probably says all that needs to be said about our commitment to our children's education. I'm sure the funding situation would be better if the big companies kicked in more. Perhaps, as a requirement, they'd demand input on matters of strategy. That's intriguing. We can let the wisdom of the private sector and market economy reshape our educational policy just as it has done for our local manufacturing base. That's the strategic solution. We can avoid a meltdown in educational funding by 2030 by outsourcing our children to be educated in China and Mexico and India, where it's more cost effective and production costs are so much cheaper. And then, in 10 or 12 years, they can ship them back to us as finished products.