Multi-Year Funding Needs
While an annual budget proposal is required and necessary, the details provide limited insight into expected costs facing the school district in coming years. This makes it difficult for the community to understand the district’s long-term needs and more challenging for Wake County Commissioners to plan effectively.
The following summary is designed to provide an overview of longer-term needs facing our teachers, students and support staff.
Given the large number of variables that affect any forecast, both the timeframes and total costs shown here are simply estimates. Moreover, the source of funding will vary depending on how much – or how little – of the expense is covered by the state.
The needs themselves, however, are unlikely to vary. Many have been deferred repeatedly since the Great Recession while others have emerged fairly recently. The list, which is presented in two sections, is not exhaustive. The first section lists the most pressing financial needs. The second section, while less pressing, lists long-term expenses that will inevitably factor into future budgets.
K-3 Class Size Phase-In
State funding for the legislation that requires smaller classes in kindergarten through third grade falls short of local needs in several key areas. The General Assembly responded to immediate concerns last year by giving school districts until 2021-2022 to reach the smaller class sizes required by the new law.
But unless those changes are tightly managed over time, the final class size requirements cannot be reached without large scale student reassignments and possible school calendar changes.
The district’s estimated cost in additional local funding for the 2019-2020 school year is $4.6 million. The next year of the phase-in would cost about $2 million in additional local money. The final year would cost about $3.4 million. The money is being spent on additional teachers needed to reduce class size. The costs do not include other challenges of the K-3 class size law such as finding classroom space and a sufficient number of qualified teachers.
Non-Certified Salary Increase
The pay of most employees who are not certified to teach has lagged behind inflation since the Great Recession. This is especially true for the lowest-paid employees such as custodians, child nutrition workers and bus drivers, but the effect has been particularly harsh for skilled laborers who keep buses rolling, buildings operating, books balanced and assume countless clerical duties that otherwise fall to teachers.
For the lowest-paid workers, the issue is one of a living wage. For those who make more, the challenge is providing a competitive wage. Vacancies can take months to fill and turnover is a constant challenge. An increase of $3.8 million is requested in 2019-2020. A five-year estimate to bring salaries in line with the current job market tops $35 million.
School Support for Social Emotional Learning
One of the surest paths to safe, secure and academically successful children is an appropriate number of counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses. This topic, singled out as part of last year’s local budget request, has received attention this year at the state level. As such, the 2019-2020 budget proposal shows the state covering much of the cost in the coming year.
Regardless of who provides the funding, a five-year estimate suggests about $30 million would be needed to meet recommended national ratios in our schools. Most elementary schools have fewer than half of the recommended counselors. Middle and high schools employ roughly 70 percent of the recommended number.
Maintenance and Operations Formula Alignment
While the salaries of maintenance and operation employees have fallen significantly below market rates, the maintenance needs of the buildings themselves have also been deferred to create funding for teachers and classrooms. This has resulted in a constant backlog of work orders, many of which involve regular repairs to heating and cooling systems stretched beyond normal and recommended life spans. The current budget proposal request $2.5 million in 2019-2020 as part of a five-year estimate of about $25 million.
While the rapid enrollment growth of past decades has abated, some areas of the county continue to attract new students every week. Capacity caps prohibit the enrollment of new students at more than 20 schools this year, about 14% of all students attend classes in approximately 1,000 classroom trailers and dozens of schools exceed the capacities for which they were built.
This challenge will become larger if the K-3 class size legislation is carried out on its current schedule. The building costs of this item can be found in the seven-year rolling construction plan created by the county and school district’s core planning team. The costs for staffing and equipping the schools would be in addition to those expenses.
Elementary School Assistant Principals
To save tax dollars and accommodate as many students as possible, some elementary schools in Wake County now enroll more than 1,100 children. The need for an additional assistant principal is obvious well before enrollments reach that level. The 2019-2020 budget proposal includes $867,000 to hire an additional assistant principal for schools with more than 900 students. It is part of a two-year effort to provide an additional assistant principal when enrollment exceeds 850 students. A similar proposal for high school assistant principals was cut from the 2019-2020 budget proposal cost to reduce this year’s overall request.
Instructional Support Technicians
During the past five years the school system added approximately 52,000 laptops through Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) 2013. During that time, no additional technology support staff was added.
During the next seven years, an estimated $22 million to $25 million will be spent annually on devices and classroom technology. It will cost at least $5 million over the next five years to bring technology support in line with the ratios recommended by the state. The 2019-2020 budget request for this item was cut to $603,000 to reduce this year’s overall budget request.
Transportation District Offices
The bus transportation system is currently organized around the district’s large comprehensive high schools. In general, they follow the feeder patterns of schools and magnet school draw areas. A new district tied to the opening of Green Level High School was eliminated this year to help reduce the overall budget request by $608,000. But the opening of a new district is likely unavoidable next year.
New transportation districts are not needed annually because new high schools do not open each year. However, three high schools are scheduled to open by 2023-2024 in addition to the delayed opening of the Green Level High School district office.
While the school district has no control over the approval or operation of new charter schools, they have a significant effect on the district’s budget. The 2019-2020 budget proposal estimates $7 million in additional local money will pass through the school district’s budget and be given to charters as required by state law. That would bring the county’s total annual expense for charter schools to about $45 million.
Charters often fail to open as scheduled and routinely open with fewer students than projected. However, the dates they are approved to open is public information and can be shared to help improve budget planning. As many as eight new charter schools could open in 2020.