In a few weeks the Wake County Board of Education will give final approval to a $1.2 billion operating budget to run the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) for another year. That’s a lot of money, even for the largest school district in North Carolina.
In 2000, the WCPSS operating budget was a mere $653 million. What accounts for the dramatic growth in the school budget? A review of WCPSS budget trends for the period 2000-2009 can help provide some answers.
Student Enrollment. In 2000-01, WCPSS schools enrolled about 97,350 students. Last fall, enrollment had risen 44 percent to 141,141 students.
Employee Growth. Interestingly over the same period, the number of full-time, professional and non-professional staff also expanded by approximately the same percent (43). In the fall of 2009, WCPSS had 16,716 full-time employees. So where did all the expansion occur?
Teachers. It’s true to teach over 40,000 new students lots of teachers had to be hired. According to Department of Public Instruction reports, since 2001, WCPSS has hired 2,919 new teachers. As of fall, 2009 WCPSS employed 9,277 full-time teachers. Curiously, while many parents are rightly concerned about large class size, the same data show that over the period 2000-2009, the WCPSS student/teacher ratio actually shows a slight decline from 15.3 to 15.2
Professional/Non-Certified Staff. In addition to hiring 2,900 plus new teachers, WCPSS also added 2,160 new non-teaching positions. Such non-teaching positions are classified as “professionals” (i.e., administrators, principals, guidance counselors, etc.) and “non-certified staff” (i.e., secretaries, technicians, teacher assistants, etc.). These numbers are another way of saying that for every teacher hired, nearly one (.73) new non-teaching professional or non-certified staff person was hired.
Of the 2,160 non-teaching positions added since 2001, 915 new professional staff — including 153 new administrators — have been hired. Professional occupations experiencing the biggest jumps in hiring – using fall 2009 totals – include: Librarians or Audio/Visual Specialists:359 (154 percent); “Other Professionals”:625 (95 percent); Guidance Counselors:411 (82 percent); Psychologists:86 (79 percent).
In addition to hiring 2,919 new teachers and 915 new professional staff, WCPSS has also hired 1,245 non-certified staff to assist with a variety of instructional and administrative functions. These positions include teacher assistants, skilled craftsmen, technicians, mechanics service workers and secretaries. Positions reflecting the greatest growth include the addition of 470 teacher assistants, 246 technicians (mostly all in the computer area) and 244 secretaries.
A review of these trends underscores a telling fact: while WCPSS hired over 2,900 new teachers, the district was hiring professional and non-certified WCPSS staff at an even faster rate. Changing staff patterns are most visible in ever-rising personnel costs. From 2001 to 2009, the amount WCPSS paid in salary and employee benefits increased from $544 million to $1.01 billion, a whopping 85 percent, largely the result of adding approximately 5,000 new employees since 2001. While it’s true the rising salary and benefit expenditures represent a larger and higher-paid work force, the rising payroll costs also reflect changes in two important areas.
Employee Benefits. WCPSS — like school districts everywhere — has experienced a significant increase in the cost of employee benefit plans. Over the period 2000-2009, WCPSS recorded a 102 percent increase in the cost of employee benefits. Last year WCPSS spent $211.4 million for employee benefit plans. The single largest share of that cost is health care costs. Recent state budget discussions point to a $400-500 million funding gap in the state employee’s health plan. Such realities point to the seriousness of the problem and the need to rein in costs.
Teacher Salaries: According to the annual NEA Teacher Salary Study, average teacher salary in North Carolina – not including the costs of benefits — increased from $41,496 in 2000-01 to $47,177 in 2009-10. In 2009, approximately 64 percent ($799 million) of Wake County’s $1.2 billion budget was paid in salaries. If you add employee benefits, this figure rises to 81 percent of all budget costs. Even though recent salary increases for teachers have slowed or been eliminated, the average annual increase over the period is still a healthy 3.67 percent, a rate most private sector employees have not seen.
What factors account for the dramatic rise in WCPSS school budgets in recent years? Enrollment growth accounts for part of the increase. However, what’s missing from the current discussion is the increase in the number of administrative and professional staff.
Regrettably, the current budget debate about public education in North Carolina is too often incorrectly reduced to two options: layoff teachers or raise taxes. The data discussed here show the fallacy of such thinking. More importantly, understanding these trends give policy makers other options for helping navigate our schools through challenging economic times. .
This article by Senior Policy Analyst Bob Luebke appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on June 14, 2010