School Budget Woes

Sometimes its just depressing…

Last week, Susan and I attended our local Board Advisory Council meeting (in Wake County, each school board member has a BAC made up of parent representatives and the principals of all of the schools in his/her district.  They meet periodically to discuss issues important to the school system).   The topic of the evening was the school system’s budget process, and well, it wasn’t pretty.  But it’s important for us to understand the school budgeting process, so today I’d like to summarize what we learned.  While the information here is specific to WCPSS, I think many of the principles and concerns are applicable throughout NC.

WCPSS is one of the largest school systems in the country, and it has a proportionally large budget, totaling about $1.6 billion from all sources.  About 60% of WCPSS’ funding comes from the State, as part of its Constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic education to every NC child.  WCPSS, like the rest of NC’s school systems, does not get to make budget requests of the NCGA.  Rather, the Legislature decides how much money it is willing to spend on schools and the school systems are supposed to make it work (no matter how divorced that amount of money may be from the reality of running a school system).  In addition, the NCGA requires that some of the funds it provides to the schools actually be sent right back to the state as their share of, for example, teacher raises or the state retirement system.  And, of course, the public school systems must pay out of their own budgets for the operation of charter schools.

One way in which school systems deal with the budget shortfalls created by inadequate school funding from the NCGA is that they ask their counties to kick in funds to make up the difference.  In Wake County, about 30% of the budget is funded by the County.  But even in a county as large and as prosperous as Wake County, there’s no guarantee that County leadership will be willing or able to cure budget shortfalls completely.   For example, this past year the County’s budget left WCPSS with a $25 million shortfall.

All of this would be fine (If less than ideal) if it were a temporary situation — if funding for schools was short for one year, or even two.  But in NC, our schools have been chronically underfunded for at least a decade.  And it shows.  Some alarming facts:

WCPSS has 165 fewer buses on the road this year than it did five years ago, even though it has more students enrolled.  Simply put, WCPSS cannot attract enough bus drivers at its current rate of pay, but it cannot afford to raise driver pay any further.  In addition to the obvious downsides (longer bus rides for children), transportation shortfalls have an effect on school assignment and even on the kinds of programs our schools can offer.

In recent years, WCPSS has added 5 million square feet of instructional space since 2008; but spending for maintenance and custodial services has decreased.    As a result, WCPSS spends far less on school maintenance that recommended, leading to long-term facilities issues.

The proportion of adults to children in our schools has fallen, leaving students with fewer opportunities to interact with interested, caring adults during their school day.

One of things drove my husband and I to choose to move to Wake County from Maryland 13 years ago was the quality of the public education system compared to other options on the East Coast.  North Carolina was heralded as a national leader in education.  But a decade of cuts to educational funding has taken its toll, such that many families in this state have never even experienced adequately funded schools.  Getting us back to our proud place as leaders in education will require all of us — parents, educators, and interested members of the public — to demand that our leaders start prioritizing public education again.

 

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