Wake school leaders hope to avoid using 'rainy-day' funds

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Wake County's budget proposal gives Wake Schools only a third of what it requested.

Wake County public school leaders are reluctant to dip into what they say are emergency, one-time funds to cover their budget needs and are hoping county commissioners won't force their hand.

During the WCPSS school board work session Tuesday, members expressed concerns about Wake County Manager Jim Hartmann's recommended budget, which provides only a third of what the district asked for -- $16 million in new funds instead of the requested $45.2 million.

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Hartmann also said the school system is projected to have $21 million in local funding left over in its budget this year that it can use to pay for new programs and initiatives.

County budget writers insist the $21 million is not a rainy day fund for WCPSS or a reserve account set aside for emergency response, but school board members don't see it that way.

"It's irresponsible to pay ongoing expenses with one-time monies," said school board member Jim Martin.

Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler told ABC11 that a lot could be at stake should commissioners approve Hartmann's recommendation: funding for four new schools, new school counselors, pay raises for bus drivers, an expansion of the Office of Equity Affairs.

"Indeed, we continue to ask for money," said Johnson-Hostler. "We continue to grow and we're asking for money not just to keep up with the growth in Wake County because we're a great place to live and raise your children. But we're also asking for it because there are a ton of things that I think we've heard the commissioners say that they agree with us on."

Superintendent Dr. Jim Merrill said Hartmann has assured him commissioners will bail out the school system if need be. However, he said he lost confidence earlier this year when the district was faced with the uncertainty of costly state-mandated class size requirements and he didn't receive any offers to help fund that emergency.
Now that the General Assembly has passed a compromise that phases in K-3 class size restrictions during the next two years, Merrill said more than ever, the district needs access to its reserve fund to hire more teachers.

"If we exceed a class by one student I am breaking the law and I will have to put a teacher in there immediately," he said. "If there was ever a justification for having something we can go to, I'm feeling it a whole lot this coming year."

Johnson-Hostler said if worse comes to worst, the school board will have no choice.

"We'll make cuts where we need to and we'll dip into that fund when we can where there are not reoccurring costs," she said.

Wake County commissioners have until July 1 to approve WCPSS budget request.

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