These are troubled times for our schools. The coronavirus response has emptied our school buildings, jumbled staff assignments and forced schools to pivot to online learning. Business closings, record unemployment, and sharp revenue losses for state and local governments paint a grim outlook for school budgets.
While many of our lives have been dominated by coronavirus and government mandated shutdowns, it’s now May and May is budget season. While most districts are grappling with these new realities, Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS) recently submitted a budget proposal to the Wake County Commissioners that requested $29.9 million more in local money.
WCPSS’s budget request did not resonate with Wake County manager David Ellis.
Facing a budget shortfall mostly from sales tax revenue, Wake County’s proposed $1.46 billion budget contains no additional money for local public schools and no tax-rate increase for property owners. Instead, City Manager David Ellis’ proposed budget cuts spending by $17 million. In addition, county departments are being asked to cut spending by 7 percent and no pay raises are being proposed for county employees.
Did no one tell WCPSS we’re in the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis?
All told, WCPSS is seeking $545.9 million in funding from the county, a 6 percent increase over last year, when the county approved an additional $45 million for county schools over the previous year.
Public schools receive about two thirds of all funding from the state, about a quarter from the local counties and the remainder from the federal government.
In making the school board’s case, board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said, “I ask that the public continue to trust and support us as we recognize that this will seem hard and heavy at a time that everyone in our community is being hit in tremendous ways and everyone is experiencing some form of overwhelming exhaustion.”
WCPSS seems to be saying: coronavirus has been tough, but there is no place we can save money. And yes, we need about $30 million more.
Nonsense. There are short-term steps school districts can and should take to help ease what is certain to be a rocky road. First let’s remember, schools have been operating out of homes since mid-March. While it’s not the best learning situation, there are areas where schools can save. Georgetown University school finance professor Marguerite Roza offered areas where districts should find savings in a recent webinar. Districts are underspending on such things as professional development, substitutes, stipends, utilities, maintenance and transportation. In addition, districts could also help budgets by implementing a hiring freeze, holding off on promotions and protecting cash reserves. In the long-term, districts would do well to quickly close under-enrolled schools, avoid a one-size fits all approach to cost reductions, and re-examine the cost of staff benefits and offer employees early retirement options.
Has WCPSS been willing to take any of these steps? So far, I haven’t heard of any such plans from WCPSS.
Johnson-Hostler asked the public to continue to trust the district.
If you review simple expenditure, personnel and enrollment trendlines for the last five years, however, you might be hesitant to cast your lot with WCPSS leadership and the members of the Wake County school board. The trendlines are troubling.
From 2015 through 2019, while enrollment was up just 3.9 percent, overall inflation-adjusted spending was up 8.4 percent.
County support has increased from $370 million in 2015 to over half a billion ($515 million) this year. WCPSS has received significant funding increases from Wake County Commissioners in four of the last five years.
Between 2015 and 2019 WCPSS gained 6,100 students and added 872 new employees. What ‘s more concerning is what is happening in recent years. More recently between 2017 and 2019, WCPSS enrollment has only grown by 1,194 students – or seven-tenths of one percent, yet another 480 new employees were added.
So from 2017-19 WCPSS added one new employee for about every 2.5 new students.
In 2020, WCPSS added another 657 employees,l while enrolllent numbers have been slowing. WCPSS added 42 students last year. This year WCPSS was expected to add 559 students . WCPSS ADM enrollment for 2019-20 has been reported at 161,907 However, that number does not seem consistent with initial estimates.
But slowing enrollment and continued hiring isn’t the only problem. The amount spent on employee benefits skyrocketed from $276.8 million (2015) to $352.6 million (2019). When dollars are adjusted for inflation, it’s an increase of 18 percent. When you consider the increase in employees the jump in employee benefits makes sense.
WCPSS must be aware however, that when more dollars are spent on employee benefits, there are fewer available for other expenses. Everything creates a trade-off. So far, WCPSS seems unwilling to make any changes.
WCPSS board members have said county increases are necessary to compensate for the state underfunding for public education.
Board member Bill Fletcher, said, “The reality is the state perpetually underfunds public schools. The percentage of the budgets to fund public schools continues to decline.”
That statement is simply incorrect. The percentage of the state budget to fund public schools has not been in decline. Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget (see page 3) clearly show that since 2012-13, appropriations for public education as a percentage of all General Fund appropriations have increased every year but one. In that year, 2016-17, the percentage declined, but only a mere one-tenth of one percentage point. An examination of Statistical Profile expenditure data for the last five years shows state support for WCPSS has increased from $813 million in 2014-15 to $957 million in 2018-19. During that time the percentage of state support has actually increased from 63.4 percent to 63.7 percent of all expenditures, with all annual figures closely bunched between 62.6 (2015-16) and 63.7 (2018-19) percent of all expenditures.
The myth of declining state support gets told every year and it’s simply not true.
This year WCPSS is also expected to receive between $24 -$26 million in funding from the federal CARES Act.
How do school leaders expect to use those funds?
Businesses, families, and local governments all need to adjust to the new economic reality. Wake County Public Schools request for an additional $30 million from county commissioners – in the middle of a pandemic – reflects a business as usual perspective, one that won’t play well with county government or the thousands of families, business owners and unemployed whose lives have been upended by coronavirus.
For a school district that has spent the last months facing the real challenges of coronavirus in the schools, WCPSS seems entirely unwilling to face the reality that coronavirus will significantly impact funding for school budgets.
That said, the budget is not final until approved by Wake Commissioners. A public hearing on the budget is slated for 5 pm on June 1st.