It can be easy to overlook details that tell a larger story while running a $1.6 billion organization with more than 19,000 employees, but as the saying goes: the devil is in the details.
While larger issues often capture the headlines and dominate discussion, the Wake County Public School System isn’t losing sight of its need to properly pay its bus drivers and non-certified staff, to maintain and update its physical plant, and to hire more technology professionals and licensed social workers, counselors, and psychologists.
Each area has its own merits for increased spending, but all share a common theme: The school system depends on them for meeting the needs of all students.
WCPSS staff shared these priorities last month at a joint meeting between the Wake County Board of Education and the Wake County Board of Commissioners. The message boiled down to: It’s not just about more money; it’s about better service to students.
Increasing non-certified staff compensation will take an estimated $35 million. These folks have been left out of nearly all salary discussions for much of the past decade.
Largely paid with state dollars, the starting salary for an instructional assistant is $11.80 per hour and it takes 25 years to reach $15 per hour. Bus drivers start a little higher at $13.11 and it takes seven years to reach $15. Other non-certified staff start off above $15 per hour, such as mechanics, audiology techs, school cafeteria managers, trade craftsmen, and budget analysts, but their pay scales are lower than the same jobs with other government agencies and in the private sector in the region.
WCPSS staff recommends spreading out over five years the $35 million increase in funding with $3.8 million this fiscal year and $7.8 million over the next four fiscal years.
Maintaining the school buildings and creating a functional and comfortable work and learning environment is estimated to cost $24 million over five years. This work will include some services that seem rather basic to the operation of the school but were cut during lean budget years during and following the Great Recession. This includes more frequent sweeping and vacuuming, HVAC thermostat set points, waxing and sealing floors, cleaning carpets, maintaining the landscape and outdoor play spaces, and replacing outdated or worn-out infrastructure and materials with more efficient systems.
As digital devices become more integral to the learning experience, there’s a growing need to hire staff that is trained to manage the use of and care for these devices. It would take an additional 102 technicians to fully support the nearly 6,800 devices WCPSS owns, but school staff is recommending hiring 61 technicians over five years, at just over $1 million a year for until the 2023-24 school year.
Finally, the need for schools to care for the well-being of its students continues to grow and meeting that need will require hiring more social workers, counselors, and psychologists. The estimated need is roughly equivalent to 391 full time positions. This would cost approximately $6 million more per year for five years.
Altogether, these increases would cost approximately $17.5 million more per year above other cost increases from state mandates, opening new schools, and price inflation.
These issues matter in another way which wasn’t discussed. Traditional public schools face a new type of competition in the era of expanded school choice. When given the option of shorter trips to school, fresh and inviting learning spaces, and the perception of lower staff-to-student ratios, parents may favor one educational option over another.
WCPSS still remains the top choice of 4 out of 5 students in Wake County, but maintaining that means making sure WCPSS is competitive in other areas that also matter to parents, over and above the quality of the academic, athletic, and cultural arts programs it offers. In marketing speak, that’s called “brand affinity,” and that concept is used by large consumer-facing companies to ensure they are attracting and retaining a loyal customer base.
While brand affinity isn’t among the reasons WCPSS staff is seeking to improve these areas, it’s important for the community that supports public schools to be aware of what drives school choice in Wake County. Providing long bus rides to understaffed schools which look a bit careworn inside and out isn’t providing the best it can for its students, staff, and families. These things affect school performance as well as school choice.
These are the details that matter. The devil, however, is not school choice, but in making sure WCPSS is offering the best it can for its students in all areas that matter to parents because the details are where parents make their decisions about where to send their children to school.