Wake County schools uncertain about funding for new programs

khui@newsobserver.comJuly 7, 2014 

Thousands of Wake County year-round calendar students are starting a new school year Monday, but millions of dollars in new programs for the 2014-15 school year are in limbo until the state budget is adopted.

The school board’s $1.37 billion budget includes $10.2 million in new local spending to keep up with growth and to add new programs, such as additional foreign language instruction and extra literacy teachers. School leaders say some of the new spending will have to be funded this year, but that other programs will depend on the eventual state budget.

“Those we can do this year we’ll do,” Wake school board member Keith Sutton said of the new programs. “Those that we can’t may have to be postponed a year.”

Making a case that the time is right because the economy is recovering, the school board adopted a budget this year that asked the Wake County Board of Commissioners to increase local funding by $39.3 million. It included the $10.2 million in new spending and $29.1 million in pay raises for all school employees.

Commissioners balked at the $29.1 million pay plan, instead opting to use $3.75 million in revenue from excess liquor sales to give teachers only a small pay raise. Commissioners did approve providing the $10.2 million not related to teacher raises.

But school leaders say their ability to start the new programs is uncertain because they may need to use some or all of that $10.2 million from the county to offset cuts from a possible budget shortfall caused by the state.

Gov. Pat McCrory, the state Senate and House have different plans for increasing teacher pay, moves that would require additional county funds to accompany the raises. These plans, coupled with other spending shifts that state leaders are considering, would cost Wake between $11.1 million and $14.9 million in local dollars.

The state pays the salaries for most teachers, with some school districts supplementing that pay. Although some systems pay a flat amount, Wake bases its teacher pay supplements on a percentage of the state salary.

Wake is operating on an interim budget until the state budget is completed.

“Once we know the final budget and we know where the gaps are, we’ll know how much we’ll have available for the new programs” said David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer.

If state legislators can’t decide on a new budget, the state would operate on the budget adopted last year. Neter said that reverting back to last year’s budget could actually give the district more flexibility in keeping the new programs, but it would come at the cost of losing state-funded teacher pay raises. That loss, he said, could make it harder to recruit and retain teachers.

Neter said school administrators haven’t formally ranked which of the new locally funded programs would get priority if they can’t all be funded. But he said the school district is obligated to fund some of the items.

Wake would likely have to come up with $215,470, no matter what, for coaches for new high school sports teams. Administrators recommended the funding to satisfy an agreement Wake reached with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to increase opportunities for female athletes.

Neter said the district should honor promises made for new programs.

One example, Neter told board members, would involve finding a way to replace $621,000 in funding for early college programs not included in the Senate budget. Wake has been planning to use the money, which is funded in both the McCrory and the House budgets, for a partnership between the two single-sex leadership academies and St. Augustine’s University.

Leadership academy students will be able to take some college courses at St. Aug’s campus near downtown Raleigh. It’s part of the early college model in which high school students can graduate with both a diploma and as much as two years of college credit.

“We’ve made a commitment to the parents and the public,” Neter said. “We’ve got to continue those programs.”

Neter said Wake also has to acknowledge commitments that were made to start language immersion programs at Hodge Road Elementary in Knightdale and Stough Elementary in Raleigh and to expand the program at Jeffreys Grove Elementary in Raleigh.

Wake has budgeted $107,484 to begin teaching some Hodge Road students half their required classes in Spanish and to teach some Stough students all their required courses in Mandarin Chinese. Wake is also expanding the program that teaches some Jeffreys Grove students all their required courses in Spanish.

Neter said parents have been deciding whether to participate in the program based on what they were told.

“We pretty much made commitments to the public and parents,” Neter said. “We’ll have to find a way to fund them.”

School board members said they agreed that they have to provide what was promised.

“They’re all important,” said Sutton, the board member. “They’re all priorities. Where we made promises, we need to make sure we keep them.”

But a range of other proposed new programs are uncertain. They include:

• Providing additional support for 10 academically at-risk elementary schools – $1.75 million

• Expanding pre-kindergarten services – $1.5 million

• Hiring literacy coaches to help students struggling with reading – $930,652

• Hiring facilitators for 25 schools to help teachers use technology – $609,705

• Hire intervention coordinators at high schools with low graduation rates and academic performance – $304,852

• Planning to support schools in Knightdale – $150,000

“We cannot create positions for which funding doesn’t exist,” Neter said. “We don’t have the budget.”

School board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said he’ll lobby to keep the Knightdale planning money and the new language program at Hodge Road because they’re both in his Eastern Wake district and cost relatively small amounts of money. But he noted the degree of uncertainty makes firm decisions difficult.

“Until the budget is adopted, I’m hesitant to say what we can and can’t do,” he said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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