RALEIGH — The Wake County Board of Commissioners approved its 2015 budget on Monday, including a property tax increase of 4.4 cents to fund a school-building program but not the across-the-board school employee pay raise the school system had requested.
As part of the spending plan, the county will add in the coming year $200 to $300 per teacher to the supplement it pays teachers on top of their state salaries.
Democrats, in the minority on the seven-member board, expressed their frustration with the decision not to fund significant teacher pay raises while, they said, the issue has political momentum. They promised to keep pressing through the summer and fall – a period that coincides with the campaign season, leading to November elections in which all four Republican commissioners’ seats are contested.
Democratic commissioner Caroline Sullivan planted the seed for further discussion by asking Chairman Phil Matthews to agree to an agenda item at the panel’s next meeting on a quarter-cent sales tax referendum for teacher pay.
County Manager Jim Hartmann said he and his staff would continue to meet with Wake County Public Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill and his staff throughout the summer and fall to determine whether it will be possible to turn the one-year increase into an ongoing raise. The discussions will begin, Hartmann said, as soon as state legislators approve their budget, which could include teacher pay raises but also may transfer some education costs to the counties. The county and the schools will take their next steps based on what the net effects of the state budget will be, Hartmann said.
The $1.066 billion Wake budget passed 6-1, with only Commissioner Betty Lou Ward voting against it, saying the plan does not do enough for teachers.
“When you get right down to it, they need more money,” Ward said.
In North Carolina, teachers are paid by the state, but many counties supplement the state salaries as a way to attract and keep the best teachers. Wake County pays teachers an average supplement of $6,204 per year.
During budget negotiations in recent weeks, the Board of Commissioners announced it would like to offer the highest average teacher-pay supplement in the state – if it could do so without an additional tax increase. In the budget approved Monday, the supplement boost will be funded with $3.75 million in excess liquor sales revenues.
In the months ahead, county government and school system officials will discuss whether the increase can be sustained in coming years by a budgeting maneuver in which the school system would turn over to the county millions of dollars from its fund balance. The money would be moved into the county’s fund balance, where it will help the county maintain its AAA bond rating. The county hopes such a move would free up as much as $4 million a year in tax funds per year that otherwise would have gone to improving the fund balance.
While Ward’s fellow Democrats on the board voted to approve the budget, both pressed the other commissioners and Hartmann to do more for teachers.
Democratic Commissioner James West wanted to know if it would have been possible for the county to approve the full 4.86-cent tax increase that voters were told to expect last fall when they approved the $810 million school bond, instead of the 4.4-cent increase in the final budget. The difference is several million dollars.
Johnna Rogers said staff recommended the lower tax rate because improved market conditions and other factors made it possible to finance the planned school construction with the lower rate.
County staff said the additional money that would have been raised by the higher tax rate could not be used for teacher salaries because the ballot item that voters approved only spoke to school construction and debt service.
As an alternate means of funding a teacher salary increase, Sullivan asked that the board discuss at its next meeting the possibility of a quarter-cent sales-tax increase. Sullivan and West said they would like the option placed on a referendum for voters to decide. Based on conversations with local business leaders and parents, both commissioners said they believed voters would approve an increase to fund teacher pay raises if given the chance.
The Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners is planning a November referendum on a quarter-cent sales-tax hike to fund teacher salary supplements and other initiatives. Guilford County’s board of commissioners also is considering such a referendum.
After the meeting, Matthews said the Wake board could discuss the possibility, but that there likely would be no referendum.
“I don’t see it, personally,” Matthews said. “I don’t see the votes on the board to get it on the ballot.”
Matthews said the county must be patient and see what the state budget negotiations bring for teachers and county education costs.
Sullivan was not as optimistic.
“No matter what the state does, there is still going to be a hole in the budget,” Sullivan said. “We need to start planning for it now.”
Besides the budget discussion, the board also approved $40 million in appropriations and reallocations for construction and renovations at various Wake Tech campuses, including planning and design costs to begin work at the new RTP campus.
Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.