This is perhaps the most critical year in recent memory for public education spending. Changes in state and federal funding are making it more difficult for local school districts to keep up with the needs of educating their students.
These changes have pushed more of the responsibility for a high-quality education onto the local tax revenue sources like property and sales taxes. Wake County finds itself in a difficult situation every year trying to balance the increasing local appropriation against the desire to keep taxes affordable.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners has voted to increase funding substantially over the past four fiscal years and is again considering another sizable increase in spending for the Wake County Public School System.
In addition to the direct spending on education, the commissioners have also increased support for wrap-around services such as hiring more school nurses, providing universal school breakfast, initiating and expanding the number of food pantries within several schools, and this year will expand its efforts to provide stable, affordable housing. They have done this while still keeping tax rates substantially lower than they have been at times over the past three decades.
Pending before the commissioners now is a request from the Wake County Board of Education for an additional $58.9 million in new spending for the 2018-19 school year. However, only $30 million in increased spending is being recommended to the commissioners by Wake County staff.
This is not enough.
The school system’s budget recommendation says that $48 million in additional spending is the minimum to continue the current level of service into next school year. This is driven in large part by the changes made the General Assembly, especially by the changes WCPSS needs to make to comply with the K-3 class size reduction mandate which was finalized in February. The school system is expected to hire dozens more teachers than it normally would have, and it must make adjustments at some schools to convert offices and conference rooms into teaching spaces. In all, legislative changes are requiring almost $20 million in new spending.
Also included in the $48 million is growth, or the cost to open four new schools next year. That will be about $11 million in new spending to upfit and staff those schools.
Finally, the school system aims to continue meeting the needs of students with special needs whose services were paid through a federal grant. That grant money was expected to run out a few years ago, but the school system managed to make it last through this school year.
These needs don’t even address other important initiatives the school board members believe are a top priority such as hiring more school counselors, social workers, and psychologists and expanding services for academically and intellectually gifted students.
Maintaining the current level of service is a reasonable request. It is the same standard the county staff used to build the budget for its departments. It will ensure continuity for students and teachers. It will send an important message that the leaders of Wake County are willing to keep education as a top priority for their community.
That is why WakeEd recommends the Board of Commissioners increase WCPSS funding for 2018-19 by $48 million.