COVID-19 closures saving Wake County Schools millions, but costing district a lot more

WAKE COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- Operating a school system as large as Wake County's is expensive -- to the tune of $1.8 billion a year.

The superintendent wants over $29 million more from Wake taxpayers this year to help pay for it.

With the millions of dollars the district is saving by being closed during the pandemic, why is WCPSS asking for more?

When the district shuttered every school because of COVID-19, over 700 school buses were taken off the road, an immediate cost savings in fuel.

Dozens of schools went dark, so power bills that immediately went down.
"The (typical) cost to run the district on average is about $5 million per day," said WCPSS school board chair Keith Sutton in an interview with ABC11.

The district provided a look at the unanticipated savings due to the coronavirus closure. Not paying substitute teachers saved $4 million; $8.2 million was saved from unneeded service contracts; over $4 million was saved in canceled professional development, workshops and travel; and over $3 million was saved in total in bills for utilities and fuel for buses. It's over $19.4 million in money saved for the district.

But to the question of why the superintendent is requesting an additional $29 million for next school year when WCPSS is seeing such a huge savings from being closed, Sutton explained the unanticipated expenses of the closure have been a much larger burden.

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"As you get into the expense side of it, you'll see that the savings is going right back into those unanticipated expenses," Sutton said.

According to the district's tally, the unanticipated expenses include over $16 million for devices and wifi hotspots for students' remote learning; $10 million was lost because students aren't currently paying for school lunches. Add in all the other unanticipated costs - it's almost $31 million that wasn't budgeted for.

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"But we're still sensitive to the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic and budgets are going to be tight," Sutton said. "Everybody is going to be expected to make cuts and do more with less."

Now it will be up to Wake County commissioners to decide how much of the school district's nearly 30-million budget increase to approve.

Commissioners take the issue up next week as the county confronts what will likely be significant losses in revenue because of COVID-19.
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