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Wake school budget critics give alternative

by T. KEUNG HUI on 5/4/01.

RALEIGH -- Conservative critics presented an alternative Wake County school budget Thursday that they said would meet classroom needs without requiring a property-tax increase.

The proposal was made in response to the Wake school system's request for a 5-cent tax-rate increase. The counterproposal, developed by the John Locke Foundation for N.C. Citizens For A Sound Economy, called for millions in savings in non-instructional services and transferring non-teaching funding into money for teachers.

"This, we believe, is the solution to funding classroom needs in Wake County without raising taxes," said Jonathan Hill, president of N.C. Citizens For A Sound Economy, to Wake school board members at a public forum Thursday.

The proposal was presented toward the end of the meeting, so school officials were unable to immediately respond. School board Chairman Bill Fletcher and school board member Tom Oxholm, chairman of the finance committee, said they would look at the proposal.

Hill explained that the printing of the proposal was completed late in the day, making it impossible for him to provide to school officials any earlier.

The proposal called for converting about 15 percent of expected state funding for teachers' assistants, clerical assistants and other non-teaching personnel -- or $ 9.15 million
-- into money for teaching positions and salary increases.

Don Carrington, vice president of the Locke Foundation, said the flexibility to shift the money exists as long as it can be shown it would be done to improve academics.

The proposal, written by John Hood, president of the Locke Foundation, also suggested how to make $ 3.97 million of the $ 10.6 million in cuts that school officials warn would be needed if taxes are not increased. School officials have included items such as employee dental insurance, tutoring programs, athletics and the arts as potential cuts.

Hood also called for reducing the school system's request for $ 20.7 million in new programs by $ 3.65 million.

His proposal didn't suggest which programs to include in cuts to existing services or new spending. Carrington said that would be a school board decision.

Hood also suggested cutting $ 12.14 million out of the budget from support staff and other non-instructional services. The only specific cut proposed would be eliminating the $ 4.06 million in "unbudgeted funds."

The result, according to Hood, would be a $ 696 million budget with a 1.5 percent increase in instructional programs and a 3 percent increase in support services and other programs. He noted that most of the $ 13.4 million in new spending would go to instruction.

The county now provides $ 175 million of the school operating budget. The school board wants to increase it to $ 209 million.

In contrast, Hood says the school system's $ 724.9 million proposed budget would have a 3.9 percent increase in instructional programs and an 11.1 percent increase in support services and other programs. Hood took the school system to task for increasing non-instructional spending so much.

Oxholm said part of the reason for the increase is the need to pay higher salaries to support personnel and to put more money into maintenance.