Wake County’s School Board Wants a Lot of Money. Should Commissioners Give It to Them? | Soapboxer | Indy Week
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Wake County’s School Board Wants a Lot of Money. Should Commissioners Give It to Them? 

In politics, nothing is a coincidence.

Last week, with the issue of school funding—specifically, the Wake County Board of Commissioners' 5–2 vote last year to provide $21 million of the school board's requested $45 million in new funding—dominating the county's upcoming primaries, interim schools superintendent Del Burns poured gasoline on the fire. He proposed that, this year, the school board ask the county for $58.9 million in new funding, far more than the county has ever given, and certainly more than the county's budget gurus were planning on.

Indeed, preliminary county plans, laid out in a PowerPoint ahead of a budget retreat earlier this year, envisioned giving the school system $29 million in new funds—enough to return Wake County to its highest-ever per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, according to deputy county manager Johnna Rogers. But the school board, if it goes along with Burns's proposal, will be seeking twice that—and just in time for challengers to use the request as a cudgel against the incumbents ahead of the May 8 election.

As Commissioner John Burns told me the day after the interim superintendent unveiled his proposal: "That's a great big number. Timed well, I'll add."

But it's hard to blame the school system for seeking leverage. For years, the state legislature—which is constitutionally tasked with funding public schools—has neglected its duties, leaving local governments to pick up the slack.

In Wake County, this problem was compounded by a Republican-led Board of Commissioners that, from fiscal years 2009–14, refused to raise property taxes, leaving the school system to languish during the depths of the recession, even as the state pulled back its funding. The GOP board did raise taxes in its last year in office, for fiscal year 2015, and the Democrats who took over thereafter have raised taxes in each of the three years since. In that time, they've boosted the county's teacher-pay supplement to the highest in the state and increased the county's contribution to the school system by nearly a third. Currently, more than three-quarters of county property taxes go to schools.

The commissioners have been playing catch-up. Critics, however, argue that they haven't caught up quickly enough. Which is to say, they haven't raised property taxes enough to meet the school system's needs.

But what kind of tax increases would the county have to levy to fulfill a request for $59 million?

The county already anticipated raising its property tax rate from 61.5 cents to 63.33 cents this year (each additional cent works out to $10 in tax for every $100,000 in appraised value). But to meet the superintendent's proposal, that rate would have to jump to 65.1 cents.

To use round numbers, for a home appraised at $200,000, the tax bill would increase from $1,230 a year to $1,302 a year.

But there's more. The county also wants to put a billion-dollar school-construction bond referendum on the ballot in November. If it passes, that too will require a property tax hike. So might potential bonds for parks and greenways and Wake Tech. Together, those could add up to as much as 4 cents, bringing the tax rate to 69.1 cents and our hypothetical homeowner's bill to $1,382.

And that's setting aside the fact that the school system is likely to come back asking for more money next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. Again, it's not the school system's fault; it's that the legislature is foisting its responsibilities onto local governments, especially in big, urban counties, so it can cut taxes for rich people. According to an N.C. Justice Center report, state support for education dropped almost 9 percent between 2008 and 2017 when adjusted for inflation.

In other words, the real villains in this story are on Jones Street.

But that doesn't change the dilemma facing the commissioners over the next couple of months—or the next couple of years—and it certainly doesn't change the political dynamics of the next several weeks: How much are commissioners willing to raise taxes? And how much new taxes are residents willing to abide?

The flip side is that, even after four years of hikes, Wake's property tax rates are still comparatively low. Both Mecklenburg (81.6 cents) and Durham (76.8 cents) have significantly higher rates and higher per-capita tax levies than Wake.

So yes, Wake could give the school system what it wants and still be a low-tax county.

The commissioners have certainly made strides toward better-funded schools, but they've been wary of asking too much too fast of taxpayers. The General Assembly's failures have put them between a rock and a hard place. Now it's up to voters to judge how well they've pulled off the balancing act.

jbillman@indyweek.com

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