Wake County commissioners, who decide on the level of local taxpayers’ contributions to public schools, put a bull’s-eye Monday on actions by the General Assembly that they were told increased the cost of public education in Wake by $20 million.

The panel met in a work session to consider Superintendent James Merrill’s request for $56 million in additional funding for Wake County Public Schools in the 2017–18 school year. While commissioners expressed support for the system of nearly 160,000 students, they also had a slew of questions, particularly on the level of state support versus local dollars.

The primary legislatively mandated drivers of increased education costs are teacher pay increases at $7.1 million, charter schools at $6.8 million, and class-size reduction at $13.6 million, according to information supplied to the board.

Merrill and administrators had to craft the budget without knowing whether the state would supply additional funding for a mandate to reduce the number of students in classes for kindergarten through third grade. The estimated cost to Wake for that reduction is $26 million. The schools’ proposed budget includes half of that amount, a decision that county commissioners questioned.

Legislation to deal with the cost of the class-size reduction, House Bill 13, passed the House February 16 but has sat in a Senate committee since February 20.

“The choice we’re left with is, do we ignore the needs of schools in the community and let them fall?” Commissioner Erv Portman asked. “Or do we shift and place on the back of local taxpayers the cost that has traditionally been covered by the state?”

Last year, state lawmakers mandated the smaller class sizes for public schools starting this fall, but the legislation did not come with money to provide and operate the additional classrooms that the change would require. Critics have objected to the class-size requirements because they limit the schools’ ability to pay for music, art, and other specialty education.

Other practical matters also weren’t considered, commissioners said Monday.

“We don’t have additional space to accommodate four hundred sixty-two new teachers,” said Commissioner Jessica Holmes, despite the fact that some classrooms would be vacated with a reduction in art and music teachers.

Bob Luebke, who follows education policy for the conservative Civitas Institute, told the INDY that, even though smaller class sizes have been shown to produce better results in some research, the issue is one that should be left to local systems.

“If I had my druthers, I would dispense with the class limitations altogether,” Luebke says, calling mandated class sizes a straitjacket on school systems’ ability to make decisions.

While smaller class sizes have long been a progressive policy goal, the research on them has been mixed. A study out of Tennessee in the late eighties, for example, showed clear benefits, but more recent research has shown that the policy, when put in effect across the board, isn’t necessarily the most productive way to help students learn more.

Instead, according to a 2011 Brookings Institute study, “state policymakers should consider targeting class size reduction (CSR) at students who have been shown to benefit the most: disadvantaged students in the early grades, or providing a certain amount of funding for CSR but leaving it up to local school leaders on how to distribute it.”

That’s not what the legislature did.

The $56 million proposed by Wake school administratorsif approved by the school board, then the county commissionwould bring local funding to $466.5 million, almost a 14 percent increase over the $409.9 county taxpayers are providing in the budget year that ends June 30. Overall, schools would get an estimated 4 percent hike to $1.56 billion in combined local, state, and federal sources.

State funding, historically about three-quarters of the total cost of schools, remains in flux as legislators consider what’s being billed as a billion-dollar middle-class tax cut. The N.C. Budget & Tax Center, a liberal-leaning think tank, has said almost half of the cuts would go to the top 20 percent of the state’s income earners.

Commissioner Jessica Holmes cited the proposed tax cut in her comments about stagnant state funding to local schools. Wake County would have to increase local property taxes by four cents to pay for the schools’ proposed budget increase.

“It’s disingenuous to call this a tax cut when taxes will be increased at the local level,” Holmes said Monday.

Commissioner James Westa veteran of many budget deliberations, some much more contentious than this one, at least so farsaid that school board members, commissioners, and the larger community all should put pressure on the legislature for additional funding.

“You can’t immune yourself from the community you serve,” West said. “Citizens look to county commissioners to be involved. This issue is now being talked about in terms of race and equity. In some parts of our community, they feel that they are being left out of the system. My advice is that we have to keep trying to get to the point that we have enough trust that we realize we are all trying to move in the same direction.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Untenable Mandate.”