The Wake County Commissioners voted 5-2 today to adopt their budget with $21 million in additional funding to Wake County Public School System for the 2017-18 school year.

That amount was $5 million higher than the $16 million increase originally proposed, but still lower than the $45.2 million in new local funds that the school system had requested. About $1.8 million of the additional $5 million will come from capital expenditures for the school system which is used to build and renovate schools. Also, 2.5 cents of the tax rate used specifically for school capital projects was transferred to operating expenses earmarked for the school system. This will not increase the tax rate any higher than the 1.45 cent increase already proposed as part of the overall county budget.

The school system requested its historic $45.2 million to pay for opening new schools, increased enrollment in public and charter schools, changes in state and federal funding, and adding new school counselors and social workers. The school system got almost halfway there, but at the cost of its school construction and renovation priorities.

WCPSS school board members have not said what type of impact this level of funding will have on its programming for the 2017-18 school year, but the school board will adopt a budget resolution at its meeting tomorrow evening.

This year’s discussion about funding public schools wasn’t significantly different than any other year. The school system and public education advocates believe the county commissioners – by way of the local taxpayers – are the “last line of defense” against reduced state and federal funding and other unfunded state mandates. County commissioners, staff, and taxpayer advocates suggest the county say the tax rate cannot always be raised to pay for things when the state budget doesn’t fully fund public education.

WakeEd has offered a plan to resolve this ongoing disagreement between the two independently elected board and appointed staffs.

Along those lines, Commissioner Matt Calabria offered a resolution that the commissioners unanimously approved which would establish a structured budget collaboration between the commissioners and school board members to develop a multi-year funding framework. This collaboration would produce a plan similar to the way the school system and county government approach capital spending such as school construction with a seven-year rolling plan. This effort is contingent on a reciprocal resolution being passed by the school board, and it would begin within 30 days after that.

This collaboration would aim to resolve the annual budget debate that comes down to how much the school system retains in Wake County taxpayer dollars from one fiscal year to the next. Commissioners and county staff have said they strongly support public education, but they have concerns that the school system annually has about $20 million to $25 million in unspent local funds that aren’t part of the school system’s fund balance.

County Manager Jim Hartmann and individual commissioners have suggested WCPSS use these unspent funds to pay for its program expansion goals. When coupled with this year’s increase in local funds, Hartmann has said, the school system is very close to its increased funding needs.

School board members and WCPSS staff have said that the unspent funds are non-recurring funds which aren’t known until the school system’s annual audit is completed in the fall of each year. These unspent funds have been used to pay for unanticipated costs from changes in other funding sources, but they cannot be counted on annually to fund recurring expenses.

WCPSS Superintendent Jim Merrill has said the retained funds give the school system the flexibility to respond to short-term needs arise. In particular, at a recent WCPSS school board meeting, Merrill suggested that the state-mandated class size reduction law would cost an additional $26 million per year to hire more teachers to meet those needs. The unspent funds could be used to help offset the initial costs to meet that state mandate.

Now that the county budget is determined, WCPSS awaits word on the state budget which is in its final negotiations and is expected to be released later this week.

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