The Wake County Board of Commissioners is considering asking the General Assembly to grant the county’s school board the ability to raise taxes, a move that could end years of wrangling over school funding.
The commission included shifting taxing authority to the school board tax in its list of legislative goals for 2019 during a presentation Monday. North Carolina is one of only three states where school boards depend on the county for funding. Basically, instead of being able to raise taxes to fund the school system, the school board has to beg commissioners for money year after year.
It’s an uncomfortable dance that has long been a source of strife as school officials press for more funds, and commissioners, balancing their desire to keep taxes as low as possible, meet them somewhere in the middle. For the current school year, the board asked for $69 million in new funds and received $45 million. The year before the school board requested $45 million and received $21 million in new funds.
So, for the first time, county staffers have suggested asking the legislature to change this rule to allow the school board to set its own tax rate for funding. This would not only alleviate tensions in a relationship county commissioner Sig Hutchinson characterizes as "strained by design," but also hold school board members accountable for tax hikes.
“Let them make those decisions. If they know they are going to be held accountable to the voters next time people vote, they are going to have to think about it,” Hutchinson says. “Now they don’t have to think about it, they just have to come to us and ask.”
Commissioners reviewed draft goals Monday that included the school funding change; however, the item was temporarily pulled pending the adoption of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners’ legislative goals in January, according to assistant Wake County manager Chris Dillon. The commissioners will review the school funding change again in January.
In the meantime, the commission will continue to consider giving the school board tax powers, says Commissioner Matt Calabria.
“For our families, our children, our teachers, and our businesses, we want to have a system that is going to be predictable year after year,” Calabria says. “Obviously, we would need to convince legislators that this is worth trying, but it would bring us in line with other states.”
The school board has not yet been included in the conversation, says school board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler, although she’s not surprised Wake County is considering the change given it’s been a goal of the NCACC for a while.
Empowering the board with tax authority sounds great, Johnson-Hostler says, but she wants to read the fine print before signing off. She’s also not convinced a shift in funding practice is imminent, as it still depends on the legislature’s approval.
“I don’t have any reason to think it’s something that would happen, but maybe it would,” Johnson-Hostler says. “On the face value, of course then we can set the tax rate, the amount that goes to schools, [but] it’s more complicated than the school board raises taxes. I want to know more about what they assume this means.”