Raleigh, N.C. — In Wake County, parents and teachers often pick up the slack when funding isn't there. They do fundraising for supplies, get grants and even pay salaries for extra instructors. With that effort, Wake County schools have been able to maintain top tier test scores while funding has lagged behind. Now, school officials say they need some help.
The Wake County Public School System has received about $314 million a year for the last few years from county commissioners. The amount has remained flat because of the down economy.
That breaks down to about $2,146 per student, which puts Wake County 24th out of 115 school districts when it comes to the amount of money coming from the local government. When adding in state and federal dollars, Wake County drops in rank to 102.
When looking at local funding, the Town of Chapel Hill, the City of Asheville and Dare County are on the top of the list for per-pupil spending. Chapel Hill-Carrboro spends about $4,779 per pupil, Asheville spends about $4,581 per pupil and Dare County spends about $4,489.
Chapel Hill is a top performer on test scores, but Wake performs nearly as well as or better than Asheville and Dare. Wake County schools is in the top 25 for highest test score results for grades 3 through 8 in reading and math.
There is an economy of scale issue to consider when comparing the districts, because dollars can be spent more efficiently when spread out over a much larger population like Wake County's student population. Still, Wake Superintendent Tony Tata says the school system is "a great deal for the Wake County taxpayer."
Tata said he wants the county to kick in more money, about $9 million more than last year. The county is offering an increase of $3.9 million. County commissioners are expected to vote on the budget June 18.
While the school system as a whole does well, Tata says certain groups of children are not.
“We have huge achievement gaps here. In Wake County, we have students with disabilities, limited English, low income, all performing below the state average in aggregate,” he said.
In addition to the school system operating budget, the county pays to build schools. Growth in Wake County can add 3,000 to 4,000 new students per school year.
County Manager David Cooke said he believes Wake is likely No. 1 when it comes to spending on school construction because of recent population growth. The county is currently working on its budget proposal.
"That number in our budget is $175 million this year," Cooke said.
Parents like Shannondoah Deaver are the ones pulling extra duty when budgets get cut. She volunteered to do office work to make up for the administrative position cut from her child's school last year.
“We are going to do whatever it takes to hold this school up,” she said.
At Athens Drive High School, the booster’s budget is more than $200,000, which helps pay for coaches, equipment, instruments and three additional band instructors.
In the classroom, teachers hustle to find grants to get supplies.
“We get money from Staples, Target, grants. We all apply for grants and get stuff, like my box light, which allows me to project and do all this interactive stuff,” said pre-calculus teacher Chris Remaley.
Parent Debbie Kline says she regularly brings in copy machine paper to help her school.
“Paper is gold to teachers,” she said. “We come together and we’re a great team. I have a feeling there are a lot of schools in Wake County that have a great team.”