Belt-tightening by the Wake County Public School System for the 2018-19 school year could end up cutting off circulation. It’s a moment of critical mass that is likely to get worse next year.

The spending cuts being considered by the school board over the next few weeks could affect 100 employee positions, all teacher salaries, and even student parking permit fees at every high school. Reducing the budget is necessary after the state legislature and county commissioners finalized their budget plans earlier this month for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

In all, school system finance staff have identified $33 million in possible spending reductions and revenue increases to cover an estimated $25.5 million revenue shortfall. The gap is not the fault of the school system, but rather is driven by their funding sources. The public school system receives close to two-thirds of its funding from the state and about a third from the Wake County Board of Commissioners. About 10 percent comes from the federal government for very specific uses. Therefore, WCPSS can only spend what it is given by other areas of government.

Despite that, the WCPSS serves a diverse customer base of 160,000 students through its roughly 20,000 employees. The cost to employ, train, and supply those employees are driven by multiple factors that are also out of the school system’s control. What the schools can control is how many people are employed, and which jobs each employee holds.

Some teachers are paid with state funds while others are paid with county funds. Regardless, all salaries are driven by the combined schedule for state base and local county supplemental pay. Base salaries, for example, are set and paid for by the state. The county government can provide supplemental salary as a percentage over and above the state base. When the state base increases, as it did this year, the local county supplemental pay should increase proportionally.

That might not happen this year. The school board is considering a staff recommendation to freeze the local supplement to the 2017-2018 amount.

As an example, a tenth-year teacher who made a monthly base salary of $4,055 and had a local supplement of $719.77 in 2017-18, would earn a new state monthly base of $4,600 in 2018-19, but the same $719.77 local supplement as the previous year instead of increasing proportionally. Many teachers would still receive a raise, but not as much as it would’ve been.

In addition to the salary adjustments, the school system is considering a plan to reallocate positions assigned to central office for coordinating teachers. These positions would be used to staff classrooms and administration openings in the schools throughout the district. For example, a coordinating teacher who works with other teachers to improve student outcomes might be reassigned to a regular middle school math teaching position. Others who hold principal licensure might be reassigned to schools when a principal or assistant principal vacancy occurs.

Taken together, the proposed actions would reduce the school system budget requirement by about $15 million. There are several other less invasive, but also far less costly, options being considered.

When the school board adopted its budget, it planned for an increased spending amount of about $59 million in local costs which would be paid for by the county government. This number was reached based on $48 million going to known cost increases such as salaries, opening new schools, teaching more students, and hiring more teachers to comply with the state-mandated smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.

About $11 million of that planned increase was set aside for new spending to hire more counselors, social workers, psychologists, and teachers for academically gifted students.

When the state budget was finalized in early June, it contained changes which would require about $10 million in additional local spending. That means total additional local spending would rise to approximately $70 million if the budget were fully funded.

Commissioners approved an increase of $45 million when they voted on their final budget. Of that, they sequestered about $2 million for hiring new counselors, social workers, and psychologists, and another $5.4 million to pay for opening new schools and enrolling more students. That leaves the school system with about $37.5 million available to pay for its other cost increases. Such a move had not been done before.

In previous years, the school system would balance the budget through a combination of spending reductions and moving money from its rainy day account that is often called a fund balance. That’s not available this year because it has been depleted after years of shortfalls in county appropriations.

Next year is likely to be worse. There is now very little flexibility for WCPSS to meet its operational needs and goals because of changes to the state appropriations such as reducing class sizes and limiting how schools can allocate teachers, coupled with county government scrutiny over reserves and sequestered allocations.

With little control over the cost of doing business, and similarly limited control over how much the school system receives in revenue from other governmental sources, WCPSS finds itself barely capable to deliver on its core business despite spending about 95 cents for every tax dollar it receives as close to the student as possible.

These are not lean economic times, and yet WCPSS is being required to carry out its mission as if strict austerity measures were necessary. Now is not the time to be asking the schools to continue to “do more with less.” The school system did its part during the Great Recession, as did other parts of government, but the recession has been over for eight years.

As the economy continues its healthy expansion, it means the costs of doing business are going to increase. The schools should be given the ability to cover those costs and to expand its mission to reach new goals for educating students throughout Wake County.

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