What If There Was a Simple Way to Keep N.C. School Boards and County Commissioners From Fighting Over Money? | Soapboxer | Indy Week
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What If There Was a Simple Way to Keep N.C. School Boards and County Commissioners From Fighting Over Money? 

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There's a pretty simple way to keep the Wake County Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education—and other boards of commissioners and school boards in North Carolina—from squabbling over money every year. It's an idea already in place in most of the rest of the country, and policy wonks here have been kicking it around for more than a decade.

So why aren't we talking about it?

As the INDY has reported, the upcoming Wake primaries are being fought over the question of education funding. Last year, the school board asked commissioners for $45 million in new funding; it got $21 million. The five commissioners who voted for that budget all have primary challengers who say their commitment to schools isn't sufficient.

Then, earlier this month, the interim schools superintendent proposed asking the county for nearly $59 million in this year's budget, twice what the county planned on.

It's a record ask at a politically sensitive time. The commissioners will tell you they're balancing a panoply of needs—not just schools but also parks, health and human services, and basic administrative functions. They'll tell you they have increased funding—and taxes—year after year, and by next year Wake will have equaled or exceeded its highest-ever level of per-pupil spending. And they'll tell you that voters sent packing the last Democratic Board of Commissioners that raised taxes too much too fast.

But what if this annual exercise didn't have to happen? Indeed, it happens like this almost nowhere else.

North Carolina is one of only three states in which school boards are "dependencies of general government," according to the N.C. School Boards Association. This means that, while 90 percent of the country's school boards have the authority to raise taxes to fund their schools, North Carolina's do not. Instead, every year, they have to beg their county for money.

As Wake County Commissioner John Burns told me recently, this creates a "mismatch."

"I would be happy for that change to happen," he says. "Because then the accountability would match the responsibility. Right now, we have accountability for taxes but no responsibility for the expenditure. And [the school board has] accountability for educational outcomes but no responsibility for raising the funds."

Two years ago, the NCSBA, which lobbies on behalf of the state's school boards, issued a white paper urging lawmakers to consider such a change. It points to South Carolina as a model; some of the Palmetto State's eighty-five school districts have been granted total or partial independence. A study in 2001 found that districts with independence actually increased taxes at a slower rate than their peers.

"Before you raise taxes, you go in and you scrub your budget," explains Leanna Winner, director of governmental relations for the NCSBA.

North Carolina's system dates back to the Great Depression, when the General Assembly took over school funding from a hodgepodge of city and county systems, says longtime former legislative staffer and general counsel Gerry Cohen. It wasn't until three decades later that the legislature made all of the state's school boards elected bodies. There's no history of fiscal independence here. And Cohen doesn't think that's such as a bad setup. County commissioners get to look at the bigger fiscal picture, he notes.

"As a taxpayer," he says, "I'm glad to have one county body evaluate all of these needs."

Of course, the county body doesn't always evaluate things the way the school system wants—and four times in the last two decades, this has led to school boards suing the county, most recently in Union County in 2013. (The school board won a $91 million judgment that was reversed by an appellate court.) Last year, House Republicans introduced a bill that would forbid school boards from suing county commissioners, though it's been tied up in committee.

In 2007, then-state representative Rick Glazier, now head of the N.C. Justice Center, sponsored a bill to grant taxing authority to school boards, provided county commissioners agree. It went nowhere. Since then, Winner says, the NCSBA has had model legislation ready for local bills to create pilot programs for such a system. So far, though, there have been no takers. Winner says lawmakers are worried that such a change might look like they're passing new taxes.

Christine Kushner, a member of the Wake County Board of Education, is skeptical that lawmakers will revisit the issue: "Any granting of taxing authority would, as you know, need to be authorized from the N.C. General Assembly. I do not think that is likely," she told me in an email.

Perhaps. But the underlying dynamic isn't going away. The Republican legislature is actively shirking its responsibility to fund schools. School districts—especially big, urban ones—need money to keep up with growth. Boards of commissioners are wary of raising taxes year after year, with no end in sight and little say in how that money is spent. School boards are tired of being told that they're asking for too much when they have so many needs to address.

Burns is right that it's a mismatch. So why aren't we talking about fixing it?

jbillman@indyweek.com

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