Raleigh News & Observer, 8/5/14:

Teachers will get raises in the new state budget, but the pay boost and budget cuts approved by legislators will leave the Wake County school system with a $12.6 million shortfall that could eliminate several new programs.

Wake school administrators said Tuesday that they’ll need to come up with $11.1 million in additional local dollars to largely match their share of the pay raises for teachers. Wake is also facing a $1.5 million net cut in state funding for areas such as teacher assistants, transportation and services for at-risk students.

Administrators said making up that shortfall could result in taking away some or most of the $10.2 million that was budgeted for new programs and to keep up with growth. Among other things, that money would have hired more literacy coaches, expanded pre-kindergarten services and increased funding for high-poverty schools.

But even if all those programs were not funded, administrators said they’re still facing at least a $2.4 million gap that they’ll have to find money for somewhere in the budget.

The budget problems could get even worse next year, school leaders said, under a new provision in the state budget that says that school districts will no longer automatically get new funding for new students. Money for growth could be provided after the budget is adopted but would not be guaranteed. For a district, such as Wake, that adds more than 3,000 students a year, school leaders said the change could be devastating.

“I’m still in a state of shock and stunned at the news that we’ve just heard in terms of the budget that was approved by the General Assembly ... and all the backdoor cuts that are going to take place,” school board member Kevin Hill said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I hope folks will look at that and speak out.”

Increasing teacher pay

A centerpiece of the new $21.2 billion state budget adopted last week is that it includes raises for most public school teachers.

Like some districts, Wake supplements what the state provides by providing a percentage on top of each teacher’s base salary.

For instance, the new state budget would raise the salaries for beginning teachers to $33,000, a raise of 7 percent. Wake would provide an additional boost to raise the salary to about $37,700 a year.

Wake’s match of the pay raise for teachers and other school employees comes out to $10.1 million more in local dollars.

Another state budget change is adding $1 million in additional local costs for Wake.

David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer, said the state is providing $8.8 million for more teachers. But he said the new state budget also cut money for other services, including $9 million less for teacher assistants, $740,000 less for services for at-risk students and a $520,000 transportation cut.

“The children are still here, the resources to address those needs are not,” Neter said.

Neter told the board that unfunded mandates from the legislature could add even more costs to Wake in the future.

For instance, legislators are now requiring schools to provide two Epinephrine autoinjectors per school in case students go into anaphylactic shock. Neter said the state isn’t providing funding, which will cost $250 per school for Wake’s 170 schools, or $42,500.

A much-deeper hole that Neter said Wake faces is the 2015 elimination of state Department of Transportation funding for school districts to provide driver’s education training. Wake would still be required to provide the training and be allowed to charge students $65. But school officials said the actual cost is a couple of hundred dollars per student.

‘Stupid’ and ‘idiotic’

Once the state budget is signed, Neter said he’ll come back to the school board with recommendations on how to cope with the shortfall.

The budget news caused school board members to offer exclamations such as “idiotic” and “stupid.”

School board vice chairman Tom Benton said the board needs to talk with the Wake County Board of Commissioners soon about coming up with the additional money to fill the budget hole. Benton and other board members said talk from commissioners about the school board having a deep “slush fund” to cover costs is exaggerated.

“This really sets the stage for some extremely tough decisions, not just on our part but on our county’s part, about how we are going to fund public education – not even to show growth or improvement but to maintain what we have,” Benton said.