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Schools Seek More Funding to Meet Goal

BY T. Keung Hui
by T. Keung Hui on 3/12/01.

RALEIGH -- Wake County school officials want taxpayers to come up with an additional $ 93.8 million over the next three years to help students reach ambitious performance goals.

School officials said Monday that the additional spending would result in a 5-cent tax-rate increase, equal to $ 50 more a year in property taxes on a home assessed at $ 100,000, or $ 75 more on a $ 150,000 home. County commissioners, who will decide whether to grant the tax increase, were told the money will be targeted at improving teacher pay, helping low-achieving students and improving magnet schools.

School officials said the money is needed to help Wake reach its goal of having 95 percent of third- and eighth-graders passing the state's end-of-grade reading and math tests by 2003. The passing rate has been improving, but it is only at 80 percent in third grade and 87 percent in eighth grade.

"Goal 2003 is in our reach," Tom Oxholm, the school board's finance committee chairman, told commissioners. "We can reach it if we get additional funding. If we don't have a tax increase, we'll start to go backward because we'll be offering less services to keep up with more students."

The tax increase request is expected to generate opposition.

Just two years ago, commissioners approved a 10-cent school tax increase, but most of the money was for construction. And last year's $ 500 million school construction bond issue was passed with the pledge it would not spur a tax increase.

Although school officials maintain that the bond issue's no-tax pledge applied only to construction and not to the operating budget, others say that's not how it came across.

"If they were going to need additional money greater than from revenue growth, they should have said that last year," said Chuck Fuller, a member of the school bond campaign committee and head of the state chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a grass-roots conservative group.

Several commissioners said Monday that it was too soon to have an opinion. They said they needed time to consider requests from both the school system and Sheriff John Baker, who asked Monday for $ 6 million more, a 1-cent tax-rate increase, to hire new officers.

Under a 1997 legal agreement, the school board can demand a larger share of taxes unless five of the seven commissioners are opposed.

Based on all these concerns, school officials said they will launch a campaign to raise public support before commissioners vote on the county budget in June.

"If this is something the people think is a good idea, we'll hear by June," said Michael Weeks, chairman of the board of commissioners.

The tax increase would raise $ 30 million in the first year, $ 31.3 million in the second year and $ 32.5 million in the third year. Of that $ 93.8 million, $ 72 million will specifically go to strategies to reach the 95 percent goal by 2003.

The remaining $ 21.8 million would help cover the costs of growth as Wake is projected to go from 97,563 students this year to 110,611 by 2003-04. County commissioners currently provide $ 175 million of the school system's $ 666 million operating budget.

School officials divided the strategies for reaching the 95 percent goal into three approaches with examples of some

- Improve teacher quality by reducing class size in targeted schools, improving the compensation package for teachers and support personnel and increasing teacher recruitment efforts.

- Improve academic achievement by maintaining existing instructional programs with a focus on challenging all students, providing more resources to schools identified as most challenged and funding the equivalent of 22 additional days of instruction for students in grades K through 8 who are below grade level in reading and math. Currently, those students get help only with reading. The strategy also calls for providing instructional assistance for high school students who are below grade level, implementing additional programs for special education and limited English-speaking students, and expanding character education.

- Provide opportunities for parental choice by continuing and improving existing magnet programs, implementing new magnet programs to improve academic challenges and to fully utilize schools, and offering more programs during the three-week breaks in the year-round school calendar.

School Superintendent Bill McNeal told commissioners that the magnet school program is still needed. Most of the magnet schools are in the downtown Raleigh area and offer innovative instructional programs to encourage students to voluntarily leave suburban schools, notably in western Wake.

To drum up support for the funding, school officials outlined how far Wake still has to go.

Commissioners were told that 9,183 students, about 15 percent of students in grades 3 through 8, scored below grade level in reading or math on the state exams.

In grades K through 2, about 25 percent of the 6,700 students show low performance on literacy skills.

In grades 9 and 10, more than 3,000 students were identified as below grade level.

"In spite of the tireless efforts of our teachers and principals, we haven't reached Goal 2003, and at this current rate, we aren't," school board Chairman Bill Fletcher told commissioners. "That's why we're here."

School officials had told commissioners in February that an additional $ 44 million a year would help Wake reach the 95 percent goal by 2003. This $ 44 million was intended to close the local school funding gap between Wake and Forsyth County, the next lowest-spending comparable urban county in the state. But school officials later said the $ 44 million figure, the equivalent of a property tax rate of 7 cents per $ 100 in property value, was not a specific funding request.