Local News

Wake boards face off over money, year-round schools

Posted May 16, 2007 8:21 a.m. EDT
Updated April 29, 2008 7:39 p.m. EDT

— Tensions between the Wake County Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners continued to simmer Wednesday when the two groups met to discuss the annual budget for the school district.

The district has requested $305 million from the county for the coming year, which marks a $29 million increase over the current funding level.

Commissioners have said they don't want to raise taxes to pay for schools, noting the approval of a $970 million school construction bond in November will raise taxes on area residents.

Commissioners Chairman Tony Gurley said the debt service on the bond issue will increase the taxes paid on a $200,000 home by $72 even if the district's operation budget were to stay the same.

"We have increased property taxes 10 percent in the last two years. That is a significant increase, and I think we're getting close to reaching the limit that taxpayers are willing to pay," Gurley said.

County Manager David Cooke said recently that the county could provide about $294 million to the district in the coming year without raising taxes.

But school board members didn't appear to like the idea of an $11 million cut in the district's request. About $16.5 million of the funding increase from last year covers costs associated with growth, they said.

"We have worked very hard to give them a bare-bones budget, and the increase is what we need," school board Chairwoman Patti Head said.

Taxpayers shouldn't necessarily have to pay for the larger operating budget, Gurley said, suggesting the district draw from its $18 million fund balance.

"As a short term solution, maybe, they dip into that fund balance a little more than they would like," he said.

School board members weren't prepared to raid the balance, Head said, noting that money often is used for emergencies.

"We believe we need the balance -- it is a good business practice -- but we'll take one step at a time," she said.

Gurley started Wednesday's meeting by reading a two-page statement to air his feelings on the year-round school debate and other points of contention between the two boards.

The school board last fall approved converting 19 elementary schools and three middle schools from traditional calendars to year-round schedules, saying the district needed the extra space to accommodate a projected 8,000 new students.

But commissioners said they never signed off on the idea of mandatory year-round schools, and in January, they withheld about $3 million the district needed to convert the schools.

The district pulled money from its reserve fund to pay for the conversions, but a judge later ruled against the mandatory year-round school plan. The district is now seeking parental consent for about 32,000 students who have been assigned to year-round schools.

Gurley said he resented comments from school board members about the year-round funding issue following a previous meeting, but he pledged his support to work with the school board to resolve growth-related issues.

"The public chastising of the Wake County Board of Commissioners for surprising the school board with unanticipated policy decisions was surprising to me," Gurley said.

After the meeting, he said he hoped his statement helped clear the air so the boards could work together better.

"You can't continue to ignore what's in the room with you," he said. "This was just my effort to call attention to these conflicts, know that they exist and continue to move forward."

Head thanked Gurley for his statement, and the two groups began to hammer out details of the district's budget request.

"Obviously, there's been tension," Head said before the meeting. "We continue to work at the relationship, and we want to be partners with them."

Former Commissioner Herb Council said tensions are inevitable between the two boards. But he said he wishes the disagreements were handled privately.

"People in the community really don't want to see this aired publicly," Council said. "Honestly, if the tension continues, it will get worse."