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Wake commissioners unlikely to budge on school budget

Citing a tough economy and proposed tax increases already needed by Wake County and Raleigh, county commissioners said Wednesday the school system is going to have to do without some of the money it requested for the coming year.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Citing a tough economy and proposed tax increases already signaled by Wake County and Raleigh managers, county commissioners said Wednesday that the school system is going to have to do without some of the money it requested for the coming year.

School district administrators in March requested an extra $35 million from the county for 2008-09 to fund new schools and enrollment increases. Last month, the school board tacked another $19 million onto the budget request, saying it wanted to fund gang prevention, literacy and foreign language programs and undertake other initiatives.

County Manager David Cooke on Monday recommended giving the school system an extra $18.5 million for the 2008-09 year – one-third of the school board's request – as part of his $983.4 million budget proposal that included a small tax increase. The additional money would raise the county's support for area schools to $319.2 million.

"Because the public certainly has had to tighten belts, I think it's incumbent upon government this year to keep tax increases to a minimum, if at all," Joe Bryan, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday during a meeting between the commissioners and the Board of Education.

Tempers were at a minimum during the meeting, a marked contrast to past meetings that have been marked by acrimony and mistrust.

Commissioners said they wanted to know how the extra money the district has requested would be used. In addition to other programs, school administrators said the appropriation would provide small salary increases to certain employees and teachers.

"I'm just curious how this allocation of funds (would go) to teachers," Bryan said. "Is the general concept to give it to all teachers (or) certified teachers? Is it going to go to those that are going to really work on math and science? And then (I want to know) how that helps us be the No. 1 school system in America?"

"The ability to retain highly qualified, competent employees at all levels of the organization to support learning and teaching is critical to us," Superintendent Del Burns said.

School board Chairwoman Rosa Gill said continued enrollment growth means operating more school buses, hiring more teachers and buying more supplies and equipment.

The two boards also heard from the Wake Education Partnership and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, which have suggested giving commissioners the authority to build and maintain schools in exchange for providing the district with a multiyear funding guarantee.

"What we're going through is a refinement process as they determine whether this is something they are able to develop an agreement on," said Harvey Schmitt, president and chief executive of the chamber of commerce.

The commissioners and the school board haven't decided whether to enter into such an agreement, but school administrators said the deal would add another $24 million to its budget request to implement student achievement accountability measures.

"(This would) move our kids from where they are to be competitive in the 21st century," Gill said.

The school district and the county need to approve their budgets before July 1.


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