Wake County schools’ request for local dollars in the 2017–18 school year will shrink to $45.4 million from $56.6 million if the General Assembly passes the class-size bill called HB 13.
That was the word from Superintendent Jim Merrill to Wake County Board of Education members at a work session Tuesday. The bill, which was amended Monday night to loosen a state mandate to shrink class sizes in the school year that starts in July, passed the Senate Tuesday and will return to the House.
Although HB 13 now offers Wake schools a significant breather
, many pieces of the budget puzzle remain to be found and edged into place. The amended bill eases the smaller class sizes mandated by the legislature for grades K–3, but not as much as an earlier version passed by the House in February.
And in 2018–19, the mandate for smaller classes will return. The Republican leadership pledged Monday to pay in that year for additional music, art, and physical education teachers, whose positions had been threatened because school systems had funded them out of regular teacher pay. But the Senate rejected a Democratic amendment Tuesday that would have written that promise into the bill.
Under the provisions of HB 13, Wake will have to spend $1.8 million to meet class-size guidelines instead of the $13 million the system had included in its budget to in part to fulfill the mandate. Other than that, board members are sticking with the $1.5 billion budget they crafted with Merrill, financial officer Mark Winters, and other staff.
"My understanding based on the discussion here today is that there's no change other than what happened with H13," Winters told board members. "We will watch that and we will make that change in the budget."
As they went through the budget, board members mentioned a number of items that could use more money: bus driver pay, raising salaries for the estimated forty-three hundred WCPSS employees who make less than $15 an hour, and additional funding for the academically or intellectually gifted program.
“We could still use the whole thing,” board member Jim Martin said of the initial budget request to the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
After the meeting, board chairwoman Monika Hostler-Johnson mentioned the harsh realities that accompany the reprieve offered by HB 13. When the mandate returns in full in 2018–19, Wake will have to delve into remedies Merrill raised during the months when HB 13 languished in a Senate committee. Among them: using more portable classrooms and moving students from overcrowded schools to those with available seats.
The General Assembly didn’t budget money for more space along with its call for smaller classes, and making room for those students remains a major challenge.
“We still face capital needs,” Johnson-Hostler said.
On the face of it, making the best use of schools would seem to call for reassignment of students from areas with overcrowded schools to those with openings. But Johnson-Hostler wouldn’t touch that topic. After all, it was widespread redistricting by a primarily Democratic board in the early 2000s that eventually helped bring Republicans into power in the 2009 election.
Johnson-Hostler said the system would carefully evaluate areas of school-age families’ growth and work to match students from those areas with existing and new space.
“We know what the variables are,” she said. “I think we’re going to have a challenge regardless.”