Wake schools say they have many needs. That could cost taxpayers an extra $55 million.

Wake County taxpayers will likely face a request this year for another $50 million increase in funding from the school system.

School administrators said Friday they’ve already identified $44 million in funding needs this year because of required increases and the loss of federal COVID aid. That amount doesn’t include millions of dollars for other items that the school board might ask for, such as higher salaries and benefits for employees.

“This is a transition year for us, and we know that (COVID) money is coming off the table,” Wake Superintendent Robert Taylor said during Friday’s school board planning retreat. “We’ll have to try to figure out how to fill the gap.

“We believe we’re going to be up to $50-55 million. We’ll do our best to try to squeeze it.”

Taylor will present his proposed operating budget for the 2024-25 school year in late March or early April. The school board will review it and potentially make changes before sending a budget request to the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

History of county funding support

The all-Democratic Board of Commissioners has historically been very supportive of the school system.

Since the 2017-18 school year, local funding has risen by 49.5%, or an increase of more than $213 million a year. Last year, commissioners provided a $50 million increase in school funding.

This school year, commissioners are providing the district with $644.3 million. That’s 29% of the school system’s $2.2 billion operating budget.

The state is providing $1.1 billion, or 52% of the operating budget. School board members have accused state lawmakers of underfunding public schools, causing commissioners to increase their support.

The county’s ability to fund another big school increase could be hampered by the recent property revaluation. Residential properties rose an average of 53% in tax value from the last revaluation in 2020, The News & Observer previously reported.

Local funding requirements

As part of the budget development, different departments provided funding requests. Some things, though, the district says are local funding requirements. Those items include:

Replace one-time federal COVID aid funding that was used to pay for behavioral health support positions and a permanent substitute teacher at ever school — $21 million.

Local funding required to match employee pay increases expected in this year’s state budget — $10 million.

Pass along funding to charter schools due to their increased enrollment — $9 million.

Local funding required to operate one new school next school year and for early employee hires tor five new schools opening in the 2025-26 school year — $4 million.

“We’re looking at an a minimum of $44 million without doing anything else,” said school board member Lindsay Mahaffey.

Higher pay and benefits for employees

There are other items that the school system would like to fund, particularly increased pay and benefits for employees.

Educators, school support staff and their supporters rally outside the Wake County school board meeting in Cary, N.C. on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021 to call for higher pay. The school board is considering whether to ask for enough money to raise the minimum salary to $18 an hour for hourly staff.
Educators, school support staff and their supporters rally outside the Wake County school board meeting in Cary, N.C. on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021 to call for higher pay. The school board is considering whether to ask for enough money to raise the minimum salary to $18 an hour for hourly staff.

In recent years, Wake has raised the minimum salaries for its lowest paid employees — such as teacher assistants, cafeteria workers, custodians and secretaries — from $11.80 an hour to now $17 an hour. It would cost $8 million to raise the minimum salary to $18 an hour and to expand this year’s state-mandated pay raise of 3% to 4% for classified staff.

The school district uses local funds to supplement the state’s base salary for teachers. It would cost $7.3 million to provide teachers and other certified staff with a 4% increase this year in the salary supplement.

Board members have also expressed interest in increasing pay and benefits in other ways, including:

Help mitigate how the state doesn’t raise the annual pay for all veteran teachers.

Raise the pay for Maintenance and Operations staff, particularly among workers who maintain heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, Wake cited lack of staff for why so many schools had to close or send students home early because of air conditioning problems.

Provide dental and vision insurance coverage at no cost to employees

Cover the cost of teachers to get certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. It costs $1,900 to get certified but leads to the state providing an annual 12% increase in pay.

Fund the computer system upgrades needed to switch to a bi-weekly paycheck for hourly employees. Staff have complained about how difficult it is to budget when they’re paid once a month.

Other budget priorities

Board members have expressed interest in funding other areas as well, such as reducing the $200 per year parking fee for high school students and providing academic coaches for low-performing schools.

David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer, said it would cost $200,000 for every $25 reduction in the student parking fee.

Board members have also talked about upgrading the transportation department facility on Rock Quarry Road in Raleigh. Transportation safety assistants who ride on school buses and in special education vehicles have complained about having to wait in their personal vehicles due to the lack of space at Rock Quarry Road.

Ask county for a $60 million increase?

Board members split into three small groups to review the budget information. There was general agreement about the need to keep the $44 million already identified by staff.

Board members said it was important to keep the additional support positions such as counselors and social workers who were hired with the COVID aid.

But members talked about scaling back some of the proposed pay raises. For instance, board member Tyler Swanson said his group suggested raising the minimum salary to $17.50 this year instead of $18.

Board chair Chris Heagarty said his group suggested asking the county for a $60 million increase this year.

“We’re hoping for $55 million,” said Taylor, the superintendent. “If for some reason they say $45 million we’ll be up late at night figuring these numbers out.”