Presented with the kinds of cuts Wake County schools face in the new budget year, school board members said Tuesday it was time to sit down with their counterparts on the county commission to once again present the system’s “acute needs.”
In a school board afternoon work session, financial officer Mark Winters presented a pared-down budget that still showed a roughly $13 million shortfall. The Board of Commissioners, which doles out a portion of county funding to the schools, refused the schools’ request for $45 million in new funding this spring, instead offering $16 million in new money along with an instruction to the system to spend $21 million from its rainy-day fund.
School board members gave serious discussion to returning to the Board of Commissioners and in effect asking them to reconsider. In particular, they said, commissioners, who voted 5–2 against the presented budget, had said Wake schools shouldn’t worry about spending reserve funds because the commission would provide support if more was needed.
County commissioner Greg Ford, a former principal, attended the meeting but declined to predict how his colleagues would greet a request for more money.
“I’m interested in hearing what some of the suggestions will be,” said Ford, who voted in favor of the school board’s request.
School board member Bill Fletcher, among others, argued that the schools’ needs are already acute. He cited the situation of a young student he met who never spoke in class until a group of professionals worked with her intensively. Finally, she raised her hand and answered a question.
“It took multiple professionals with a focused plan, in order for that barrier to be broker for that one student,” Fletcher said.
Members suggested a joint meeting might put aside a level of animosity that developed between the boards during the budget process. “Then perhaps we can take a page of the playbook of the General Assembly and appoint a conference committee of both boards that might sit together and hammer some of this out,” school board member Keith Sutton said.
School board attorney Jonathan Blumberg said after the meeting that such a joint body could be formed if both boards agreed to it. Its meetings and actions would be subject to open records and meetings law.
School board member Roxie Cash suggested that the two-board process would work better with a mediator to help arrive at solutions.
Schools superintendent Jim Merrill said he likes the conference committee idea.
“As long as can keep talking about possibilities, I’m in favor of it,” he said. “I like it better at the elected level, instead of at the staff level.”
Winters suggested one scenario that would help produce a balanced budget but would cut into board priorities of giving more support to students at risk of poor performance or behavior problems, as well as a plan to give extra-duty pay to teachers who also serve as coaches or in other capacities beyond their core jobs.
“You could remove the expansion of counselors and the delaying of the extra duty” to cut $12.6 million, Winters said. Budget director Terri Kimzey pointed out that this would leave a $1.3 million gap.
As Merrill put it, “Those are just two very big items that would get you to closer to [being] balanced.”
One of the schools system’s dilemmas is that every planned expense has a constituency. Indeed, Sutton responded to the suggestion that extra pay for coaches and others be cut by noting it would contradict a promise the board had made to that group. To cut the extra-duty pay could harm employees’ trust in the board, said chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler.
To which Fletcher responded, “I agree, but what goes into that two-million-dollar hole?”