There’s a thin line between being fiscally cautious and fulfilling campaign promises to support public schools to the hilt, members of the Wake County Board of Commissioners learned Monday.
At issue at a commission work session was the gap between the $45 million in new money the school system originally proposed and the $16 million—plus the schools’ reserve fund—that county manager Jim Hartmann has proposed to fund the system in 2017–18.
Wake County schools have no taxing authority, so there’s a yearly exchange of opinions on how much the Board of Commissioners should include for schools out of the county budget. At Monday’s meeting, commissioners seemed acutely aware that several of them had been elected because of their advocacy for public schools.
“In my estimation, the public has already spoken about what the priorities are,” said commissioner Greg Ford, a former Wake County principal. “The first thing people ask about when they move to this region is, ‘What about the schools?’”
School officials have argued that the system needs roughly a 6 percent reserve for unexpected expenses.
And that has become the most contentious issue—the $20 million or more that county finance staffers say the Wake County Public School System is holding over from year to year. School board members maintain that the surplus is not that much and that it would be unwieldy for the schools to have to go running to commissioners in emergencies or shortfalls.
“I'm concerned about the fiscal health of the school system,” Ford said. “They need to have that flexibility to adopt to the shifting landscape.”
Given that need, $20 million to $40 million out of a schools budget of $1.6 billion is a small percentage, Commissioner John Burns pointed out.
While that share seems relatively low, that $20 million would represent 1.5 cents on the property tax rate if taken from county operating funds instead of from the schools’ reserve, said deputy county manager Johnna Rogers.
“It’s very simple: we either reduce costs or increase revenue,” Hartmann said.
Some variables got thrown into the mix Monday, notably $1.5 million in sales taxes based on revenue that was higher than expected. That gave the county some wiggle room, along with the notion that cuts in other areas of county operations might be found to increase the schools budget to a level as yet unspecified.
Based on members’ comments, it appeared that Hartmann’s budget, which calls for a 1.45-cent property tax increase, would ultimately get the necessary majority of votes on the seven-member commission. However, details on what would be funded or cut in the final budget remained under discussion. The system’s requested increase in school social workers, at a price tag of $10 million, will likely be one of the casualties of cuts, as will millions in funding for academically gifted students.
Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the budget June 19, at their next regular meeting.