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In Wake County, tension over public school funding grows

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises this budget season came with increasing tension in Democrat-dominated Wake County over public school funding.

As Policy Watch reported last month, Wake County commissioners approved a $21 million funding increase for the fast-growing school system, which is the largest in the state. However, that amount was only about half of the increase requested by members of the local school board.

An interesting report Wednesday from The News & Observer gives some perspective on the new dynamic for both Democrat-controlled boards:

In just two years, Wake County school board members have gone from talking about a new era of cooperation with commissioners to saying that there’s a lack of trust between both boards.

The difference in the two feelings comes from how the Wake County Board of Commissioners provided a record $44.6 million school funding increase in 2015 compared to $21 million boost this year. While the 2015 increase provided nearly all the school board had requested, this year’s amount is less than half the requested school budget increase.

The non-partisan school board, which has a Democratic majority, had welcomed the election of a Democratic majority to the commissioners after the 2014 election. Commissioners have raised the annual amount provided to the school system by $90 million since 2015. But the 30-percent budget increase hasn’t been enough for the school board.

Compare the comments made by school board members who were also in office in 2015. In both cases, the school board was reacting to the adoption of the county budget the day before.

“We appreciate the work and the collaboration with the county commissioners,” school board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said in June 2015. “And how they really showed up in support, for me both not just their words but their actions last night, by passing the school budget.”

But on June 20, Johnson-Hostler, who is now the board chairwoman, was talking about how the school district is now facing a $24 million budget shortfall.

“When curve balls come because they come regularly – several yesterday – we roll with the punches,” Johnson-Hostler said. “Apparently we roll with the punches so well that it appears that we actually don’t need a lot of help.

“But I would dare say we need a lot of help and we need the entire community to be a part of reminding us how much help we need.”

School board member Bill Fletcher had worn what he called his “cooperation tie” to the June 21, 2015 board meeting.

“I’ve worn this before in hopes that we would have cooperation with our county commission,” Fletcher said two years ago. “I’m wearing it today by the demonstrated cooperation and collaboration that we have with our other elected body in the county as well as our staffs.

“I want to give a shout-out to both our superintendent and to county manager for their working together. In our meetings with commissioners and staff, I believe there’s a greater understanding of what both of us bring to the table, of our responsibilities and how they are not necessarily the same but how they complement each other.

“I see that as a very positive foundation for how we move forward as a community to provide the services that we need.”

Two years later, Fletcher was faulting county staff and commissioners for how they were saying that the school system didn’t need as large an increase because it didn’t spend all the local money it was receiving.

“There were some things said during this budget cycle that at least bordered on the edge of calling our staff incompetent or untruthful and I reject that categorically,” Fletcher said at the June 20 work session. “I have extreme confidence in the people who’ve been serving us for more than 20 years each in budget and finance, and I have no reason to believe there’s anything in our financial reporting and our budgeting and our budget request that is anything other than above board, on the table with all the numbers adding up the what they’re supposed to.

“So I want to express a note of confidence in our staff for what they have presented and the challenge of maintaining a positive attitude with some of the comments coming from other folks who’ve been elected to serve our community so thank you very much.”

During board member comments at the regular meeting later that day, Fletcher held his tongue.

“I won’t say anything derogatory about our friends downtown,” Fletcher said. “I’ll end, otherwise I’ll get in trouble.”

 

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