Sometimes wounds have to be ripped open before they can heal.
That was the conclusion reached by leaders of Wake County’s government and school system Monday. The subject was smoothing the path to an agreement on how to pay for educating the 161,755 students projected to attend Wake schools next year.
The Board of Education came up with a memorandum of understanding that would create a new committee comprising three members each from the school board and the purse-strings-holding Board of Commissioners. Ideally, the committee would work collegially through the year, as an aid to the budget process, which involves members of both boards arguing from April to June over whether the county should fund all of the school board’s budget request.
During the most recent process, the negotiations left some bruised feelings, some of which were revived Monday night. Commissioner John Burns recalled being labeled “treasonous” after he voted for a lower amount than the school board’s request to increase local funding by $45 million.
“Mr. Burns, I appreciate your opening the wound,” said Bill Fletcher, a school board member.
Fletcher said the school system had cooperated with commissioners, putting off a seven-year funding plan because it coincided with a transit referendum and supporting a sales tax increase for affordable housing.
“Our staff was impugned that their data was not accurate,” he said, referring to acrimony during budget discussions. “We’ve got some wounds to heal.”
Though both boards professed interest in the memorandum, snags immediately emerged. Talks reflected the seemingly inevitable clash between the school board’s mission to seek visionary and practical solutions for students and the commissioners’ charge to meet the county’s overall needs without large tax increases.
“It’s time we get past the surprises we encounter every year,” Burns said, referring to expensive requests that appear before commissioners at budget time.
“I do feel the Board of Education has worked hard to answer questions from commissioners during the budget process, which had not been done in previous years,” said school board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner.
Kushner’s colleague Jim Martin was more direct.
“There has not been a surprise budget coming out of the Wake County school system during the past five years,” Martin said. “I get frustrated when I hear ‘surprises.’”
The request for $10 million for counselors and social workers appeared in Superintendent Jim Merrill’s April 4 presentation but did not make it through the budget process. The ask was designed to help students who have yet to succeed in the system, but also to respond to several racially charged incidents in the system during the past school year.
Burns apologized to Martin for saying “surprises.” He then created a surprise of his own by suggesting that the boards simply tell the General Assembly that Wake should be allowed to postpone budget-testing class-size mandates.
The lawyers in the room, Scott Warren for the commissioners and Jonathan Blumberg for the school board, greeted Burns’s proposal with a notable lack of enthusiasm.
“Literally you’re talking about flouting the General Assembly,” Blumberg said.
Warren wouldn’t discuss it at all: “This is not the appropriate forum for attorney-client discussions. It’s just really not a good idea.”
School board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said her panel’s members would discuss and return with a decision about the plan for an ongoing budget committee, hoping to create a better path to the system’s mission of preparing students to thrive in a “complex and changing world.”
“Students are ever changing, and it is our job ever to be meeting those needs,” Johnson-Hostler said.