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Wake school leaders appeal to county commissioners

Last month, the school board approved a proposed budget of $1.7 billion, which would come from a combination of local, state and federal funding.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Larger class sizes and fewer courses are already part of the new reality for the Wake County Public School System in tough economic times, the district's superintendent told county commissioners Wednesday.

But the economic impact could be deeper, Del Burns said, without $316 million it needs from the county for the 2009-2010 school year.

Last month, the school board approved a proposed budget of $1.7 billion, which would come from a combination of local, state and federal funding.

School officials have said the requested county funding – about $700,000 more than last year's original budget – would help take care of costs associated with 2,500 additional students and three new schools.

Even though the additional amount is much less than what the district requested for the 2008-2009 school year, county commissioners are facing a projected budget shortfall of at least $23 million and are looking to cut department budgets throughout the county.

"I'm an advocate for not slashing (budgets) at all, but by the same token, I also realize we don't have too many choices this year," county commissioner Betty Lou Ward said. "The choices that we maybe have had in the past are not there this year. We're having to slash everything."

But Burns said Wednesday that the school system is also preparing for about $40 million less in funding from the state. State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison has also told districts statewide to limit spending to essential needs.

Burns said items considered non-essential include paper and other supplies as well as costs for other services, such as tires and transmissions for buses.

"We're not going to be able to deliver those under the state's directive," he said.

Although Burns said it is unlikely schools will be running out of paper, he acknowledged that, if schools have not budgeted properly, there might not be enough funding.

"What it will mean is that there will be fewer resources. That will be some things that folks will have to choose not to do because they have to make these tough decisions around priorities that are present," Burns said.

Board members have already considered various money-saving measures, including increasing class sizes to reduce the number of teachers needed, eliminating some high school electives and ordering employees to do away with personal heaters, fans and coffee makers to cut electricity costs.

The school district also plans to keep in place a hiring freeze on administrative positions, and Burns has made last year's $11 million in state and local cuts permanent.

Burns has ordered principals to fill no more than 95 percent of their openings. That means some of the nearly 1,500 teachers and school employees whose contracts expire at the end of June could lose their jobs.

"I'm hopeful that I'm going to be able to bring some of my terminating contract people back," said Bob Smith, the principal at Durant Road Middle School in Raleigh. "For right now, it weighs on their minds. It weighs on my mind. You lose sleep over it."


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