Wake County Schools

Wake schools may have no way out of classroom cuts in 2011-12

Posted November 16, 2010 7:43 p.m. EST
Updated November 17, 2010 10:38 a.m. EST

— There is likely no way that Wake County schools will be able to avoid larger classes and layoffs in the 2011-12 year as federal, state and county governments cope with shrinking income and budget cuts, the school board heard Tuesday.

The board also came up against deep divisions about how it should proceed with trying to implement a new student assignment policy.

"Wiggle room" to avoid classroom cuts the system has ducked before "is all but removed, if not totally removed," chief financial officer David Neter told the board at a work session.

Neter and his staff are preparing the "business case" for a year in which state support could well fall by $50 million, and no one knows how bad shortages will actually be once state and county budgets are in place.

To dramatize the size of the problem Wake faces, Neter said that a $50 million cut in state funding would be the same size as laying off 1,000 employees at an average salary-and-benefit cost of $50,000 each.

The Wake budget for 2010-11 is $1.4 billion -- $1.2 billion in operating money and $200 million in capital spending.

Neter said other districts have had to deal already with what Wake could face in the 2011-12 year. Some of those cuts have included increasing class sizes and laying off teachers and counselors, cutting out courses not required for graduation and going to half-day kindergartens, which is not allowed in North Carolina.

Since the county reduced its support in December 2008 as the recession took hold, Neter said, that source of funds has dropped $55 million through the current year.

The staff is doing budget work now assuming state funding and county funding for 2011-12 will be the same as for the current year, but they know at the same time that is almost impossible, Neter said.

"We've maybe bought ourselves a year" by cutting in non-classroom areas before, the finance director said, but that time is gone.

Wake officials knew they were going to lose $40 million in one-time funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and Neter told the board that had been accounted for.

The board ended its six-hour work session on a divisive note, give a 5-4 informal "thumbs-up" vote to holding a work session on a proposal by member Kevin Hill on how to reach consensus in trying to devise a plan to implement the system's new community-based student-assignment policy.

In a series of 5-4 votes earlier this year, the board majority elected last November dumped the previous policy of including socio-economic diversity as a factor in assigning students to schools. Hill, who used to chair the board, was in the minority.

Any assignment plan made in a process that does not have consensus will not work, Hill predicted. He called for all board members to handle reassignment because, "That's one of those issues that transcends the committee level."

 The Student Assignment Committee chaired by majority member John Tedesco had been moving toward a plan based on several attendance zones. That stalled when member Debra Goldman, who supports the policy change, said it was going too fast with too little input from members, joined the minority for a 5-4 vote to stop it.

Member Chris Malone, one of four elected in 2009, said the minority was trying to use discussion about terms and goals to undo the vote it lost.

"The only way to" have everyone in the county "accept an assignment plan is to have all nine board members involved in building it," Goldman said.

"Hopefully, it will be more than a 5-4 vote" on a plan, she said. She added that even if the same split continues, all members will have had a part in the process. "This issue is so huge" that it is overriding all other discussions, she said.

In other action at its Tuesday work session, the board indicated to Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens that it wants to keep end-of-grade and end-of-course test requirements for student promotion next spring.

The state Department of Public Instruction decided to drop test proficiency as a requirement, part of a move toward a revised way of measuring student success. The change came after the current school year had begun.

"We started the '10-'11 school year with parents and students" expecting they would have to be proficient, Hargens said. With the state's decision in October to drop test results, one argument is that students might not take the tests seriously in the spring.

"What we need is direction for what to tell our schools," Hargens told the board.