Wake school leaders ask for $56 million budget increase

5 April 2022

— The Wake County Public School System wants to ask Wake County commissioners for a $56 million budget increase next year to raise employee pay and to hire more employees.

Superintendent Cathy Moore unveiled her proposed budget Tuesday night to the county school board.

The board will decide whether to approve Moore’s suggested budget before submitting the district’s final request to commissioners later this spring.

While Moore said district leaders are optimistic that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind Wake County schools, she said the district may face the pandemic’s lingering challenges to hiring, academic achievement and mental health issues.

Addressing those challenges requires long-term investment, Moore said.

“In 2022-23, that has to start with shoring up our workforce,” she said. “The national labor shortage has made it painfully clear that every single member of our organization is ‘essential to success for all students,’” as stated in the district’s core beliefs.

The board did not discuss the proposal, which was presented as a part of the superintendent’s report, rather than as a discussion item.

The budget presentation comes as the district continues to provide employee retention bonuses and to look at asking commissioners to place a school construction bond referendum on the November ballot.

Nearly two-thirds of the extra money in the proposed budget would be for $35.2 million to increase employee pay.

Another $8.3 million would be for increased costs. Another $6.4 million would fund staff at the four new schools set to open this fall.

The $56 million would represent about a 10% funding increase from the county.

The county spends more than $500 million on the school system.

The school system’s operational costs top about $2 billion and mostly come from the state.​

One thing the proposed budget would not do is address an estimated $30 million “fiscal cliff” the district expects to incur in 2024 when federal pandemic relief funds expire. The district has used those funds to hire school social workers and psychologists that it wants to continue to employ permanently.

Chief Financial Officer David Neter said the proposed budget opted to prioritize increased compensation for staff as the most immediate need, versus the fiscal cliff that won’t come any time soon. He estimates the proposed budget covers about $2 million of the anticipated cliff. In the meantime, the district may consider looking at its operating budget to find other ways to cover the cliff before it happens.

The compensation changes in the proposed budget include a minimum wage increase to $16 per hour minimum wage, above the $15 per hour minimum wage the state has promised school employees next year. The other compensation change is a 2.5% increase in the district’s local salary supplement for teachers, instructional support staff and administrators.

The district contends even $16 per hour, however, is not a living wage for Wake County.

Neter said the cost of living here is rising so much that the cost-of-living gap is closing between Wake and similar-sized districts that spend a lot more on schools, sometimes nearly twice as much. The district will study more closely the cost of a minimum wage increase to $17 per hour for the 2023-24 school year and $18 per hour for the 2024-25 school year.

Beyond higher pay, about $1 million would be needed for more instructional support technicians, now that the district has increased its use of technology in schools and supplied a device, such as a laptop, to every student.

Bonus for nutrition staff

The school board approved, without discussion, the district’s latest move to increase compensation Tuesday — $1,350 in bonuses for district child nutrition services employees.

They’ll come in the form of three $450 bonuses for employees, based on the how much of the school year the employee has worked for the district.

They’ll be on top of pay increases and bonuses approved earlier this school year that have correlated with some improvements in hiring and retention for child nutrition staff.

The school board has raised employee wages to at least $15 per hour and added increases on top of that for more experienced people to prevent a compression of pay to $15 per hour for the first several years of employment.

The board also approved three bonuses totaling $3,750 for full-time workers employed through November of this year.

The new $1,350 bonuses for nutrition staff are coming from federal COVID-19 stimulus funds that the school system applied to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to use.

The North Carolina General Assembly appropriated $10 million for child nutrition service worker retention and recruitment bonuses.

The Wake County Public School System received just more than $1 million from the fund, based on its student population.

Still eyeing school bond referendum

The school board is still looking at asking commissioners for a bond referendum on school construction in November.

The district outlined Tuesday $2.6 billion in capital improvement project needs through fiscal 2029, most of which are not funded by existing bonds.

It’s not clear how much the district intends to ask for in a bond referendum put before voters. School and county officials are meeting to discuss the anticipated school bond, as county commissioners must approve placement of the bond on the ballot.

The district has pursued several bond referenda since the 1990s as the county’s population and need for new schools has risen rapidly. Voters have approved nearly $1.4 billion in bonds in the past decade.

At the same time, district officials have left some needs unaddressed as they built schools.

On Tuesday afternoon, during the board’s work session, board members debated how the school district determines which schools top the renovation priority list.

Board Member Monika Johnson-Hostler noted a lack of heat and air conditioning in some schools and mentioned one school that struggles to hire an art teacher because the art room floods every year.

Board members named schools in their districts that had been waiting years, even decades, for renovations. While some board members questioned how the district determined its priority list, citing the continued postponement of some renovations, other board members noted the long waits experienced elsewhere and urged the board to trust the district’s analysis.

Johnson-Hostler suggested, however, possibly revisiting the district’s criteria for determining which schools to prioritize for renovations.

The district has pursued general obligation bonds for school construction and improvement in addition to voter-approved bonds. General obligation bonds don’t require voter approval and often have higher interest rates because tax dollars are not guaranteed sources of revenue.

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