June 23, 2008

Wake School Board Weighs Budget Cuts

By T. Keung Hui, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Jun. 23--RALEIGH -- Wake County parents, students and teachers will find out today how wide the budget ax will swing to make up the school district's $36 million shortfall for the coming fiscal year.

New programs will likely not be added, and existing services such as employee dental benefits, classroom programs and sports could be slashed. It could be so painful that the Wake school board might invoke a rarely used state law allowing it to seek mediation and potentially a lawsuit to get more money from county commissioners.

"We're not going to be able to make cuts without impacting the employees and the classroom," said Kevin Hill, vice chairman of the school board.

The school board, which holds a special meeting today, is facing a budget hole because the commissioners last week gave $319.2 million in school funding, an $18.5 million increase. The school board wanted $355.5 million, $36.3 million more than commissioners were willing to give.

Cutting the first $25 million likely will mean eliminating new programs such as expanding services for academically gifted students and offering foreign language in every elementary school. But cutting the next $11 million will be harder.

They might also have to cut $4 million because the rising cost of diesel fuel is outstripping the amount of state money the district gets to fill the tanks of school buses. Another $3 million cut might arise if student enrollment falls short of projections -- commissioners have withheld that amount to see if predictions match reality.

"I'm glad I'm not on the school board," said Jennifer Lanane, president of the Wake chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, which represents 5,000 Wake school employees. "It's not the school board's fault. They're stuck with cleaning up what the county commissioners left on their plate."

A preliminary list developed by administrators in March put the burden of the cuts on employees to try to shield the classroom. Examples included reducing the raises teachers will get and reducing dental benefits.

School board members had complained that proposal was unfair to employees so administrators will present a larger list of cuts to choose from. Board members are also expected to propose cuts.

"I would rather make cuts in instructional services first," said school board member Eleanor Goettee, a retired Wake teacher. "I don't want to make cuts that directly affect teacher benefits."

Lanane and some school board members said making too many cuts affecting employees will make it harder to recruit and retain teachers.

Two options left open to the school board to get more money include using public pressure to urge the commissioners to modify the budget or seeking a mediator.

School board member Horace Tart said it might take public uproar over cuts to get commissioners to change their minds. He didn't name the programs he was considering cutting.

"We're going to have to cut things that are popular with parents and students," Tart said.

School board member Ron Margiotta warned it would be a mistake to risk threatening popular programs. He said the school board just needs to make the best it can of the situation.

"We don't need to antagonize people by threatening to cut sports or turn off air conditioning," Margiotta said. "That just turns people off."

Joe Bryan, chairman of the board of commissioners, said there are no plans to modify the budget.

"Our budget has been adopted," Bryan said. "That's our completed budget."

Under state law, school boards can officially declare to commissioners that they don't feel they're getting enough funding. This leads to meeting with a mediator to try to resolve the argument.

If mediation fails, the school board can then file a lawsuit to request more money.

According to the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, up to five of the state's 115 school districts seek mediation each year.

Wake hasn't used mediation since 1997, when it led to a multi-year agreement that increased school funding.

School board members discussed the mediation process behind closed doors last week

"It's premature to say that we'll go through mediation without seeing if [Superintendent Del Burns] can make it work with $319.2 million," said Rosa Gill, chairwoman of the school board.

Hill, the board vice chairman, said it would be hard to meet the legal requirements of showing that the funding "is not sufficient to support a system of free public schools."

"The commissioners have given us an increase, albeit one that doesn't keep up with growth," Hill said. "It's going to be difficult to argue they're underfunding us."

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