The dispute between the Wake County commission and the school board—which the INDY wrote about in this week’s print edition
—over how much money the school system says it needs for the next year and the amount the commissioners are willing to supply grew more complicated Tuesday afternoon, with volleys from both sides.
Key points included whether the schools should roll over millions of dollars from year to year and whether the county manager correctly announced that his budget included the highest per-pupil expenditure in county history.
On Monday, county manager Jim Hartmann told the Board of Commissioners that the school system didn't need the $45 million in new spending the school board says is necessary to run an "exemplary" system. Instead, Hartmann suggested, the schools should receive $16 million in new funds and use $21 million that he said was in the school's fund balance.
Tuesday, school board member Jim Martin told colleagues in a work session that Hartmann's numbers when announcing $2,633 in local per-pupil spending didn't add up. The reason: the figure didn't include costs for the more than thirteen thousand charter school students whose education Wake County must finance.
County government responded to a request for comment via an email from spokeswoman Dara Demi: "During the budget development process each year, Wake County calculates per-pupil funding, based on the number of students enrolled in the Wake County Public School System. We do not currently and have not in the past included charter schools in our per-pupil funding calculations. We take this approach because we work jointly with the school district on projections for WCPSS student enrollment, and the county has no way to project student enrollment for charter schools."
With charter students included, the spending per pupil amounted to $2,432 per pupil, according to numbers from the county manager’s office. And the increase per pupil became 1.2 percent instead of the 2.5 percent Hartmann announced Monday.
“They’re saying they’re ignoring the obvious,” Martin said in response to the county’s statement. He maintained that the $2,342 figure might represent Wake’s largest per-pupil number in raw dollars, but not when adjusted for inflation.
Longtime public schools advocate and former Wake County commissioner Yevonne Brannon said the Board of Commissioners has to factor into its planning the growing numbers of charter students.
“We can’t put our heads in the sand,” Brannon said after the work session. “They’re part of our legal responsibility.”
On another matter in dispute, schools finance officer Mark Winters told the work session that the school system’s reserve for the year was $13.8 million, not the $21 million projected by Hartmann. Half of that amount is already included in the budget submitted by the school board, Winters said.
School board member Lindsay Mahaffey asked, “What is the impact on our school system if we zero out that fund balance?”
Jim Merrill, the schools superintendent, said Hartmann told him that the county commission would step in to help if the schools system had to spend its entire reserve fund.
“I am not as confident that will be a solution: ‘We'll help you out if you get in a jam,’” Merrill said.
Uncertainties in the coming budget year include the schools’ likely need to fund any new classroom space required by the state’s class-size mandates, the amount from projected income such as some state fees, and the status of insurance claims.
“We can't go below zero,” Winters said. “We cannot go negative at the end of the year.”
As the evening school board meeting continued, Hartmann’s office offered a statement on the status of the schools’ unappropriated funds, calling their use in the next fiscal year “responsible and reasonable accounting.”
“The $21.4 million is not in a ‘rainy day’ fund or a reserve account. These are not funds set aside for emergency response,” the county office’s email said. “They are funds that WCPSS budgeted for operating expenses but are projected to not need to cover [fiscal year 2017] expenditures. This $21.4 million is recurring, meaning it is part of the school district’s annual base budget that is available to spend for the next year, just like the county’s property tax is an annual revenue that recurs every year.”
Monika Johnson-Hostler, the school board chairwoman, said that Winters and Merrill would communicate members’ differences to the county commission.
“As you have questions, just get them into us and we'll try to provide the answers,” Merrill said.