“Purpose and Function” Budget Leads to County Tug-of-War

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Raleigh Public Record reporter Bryan LeClaire contributed to this story.

Wake County Commissioners and school board members played a little power tug-of-war last week over the spending of county dollars in education.

Commissioners Monday asked County Manager David Cooke to find out why school officials did not provide their budget “by purpose and function” as requested.

Commissioners voted last year to request a “purpose and function” breakdown of the school system’s 2011-12 budget. But when school officials made their formal appropriation request to Commissioners in mid-May, they asked for the budget in a lump sum.

Schools Chief Financial Officer David Neter recommended the lump sum request in order to maintain flexibility in how money is spent.

“It impacts our ability to use money to meet the needs of the system when you have these restrictions placed on it,” said Michael Evans, chief communications officer for the school system. “It also slows down the process because you have to go to two different boards. It could take up to a month or two before you get approval to move money within the budget.”

The “purpose and function” terms were created by the state, which requires school systems to break down into broad categories how state money will be spent. State money often comes to the district earmarked for certain expenses, such as teacher assistants or transportation.

Commissioners also requested the Board of Education inform them of any changes that switched more than 15 percent of the money to a different fund. Similarly, the county manager needs Commission approval for any budget amendments more than $75,000.

In the case of the schools’ $313.5 million budget appropriation from the county, 15 percent can really add up.

Evans said the district is not required to notify the state if the district shifts state money around.

School Board Member Kevin Hill told the Record in a phone interview that it feels like “micromanagement.”

But Coble said it’s all about transparency.

“We’ve had boards in the past — I’m not saying this board — who showed up and said, ‘We need money for maintenance and roof repair,’” Coble said. “And we say, ‘Well, we gave you money for that.’ If this is in place, it causes them to come to us … prove to us why that’s prudent.”

“Because we’re the bank and we provide the money, we have to be accountable,” he said.

Wake Schools Superintendent Tony Tata agrees. He said in a press briefing Friday that after discussions with Cooke he decided to provide the county with purpose and function designations for county money.

“I totally understand the county’s request for accounting by purpose and function,” Tata said. “It provides more transparency and I’m all for that.”

Tata sent the data to the county Thursday. He said that because the district already keeps track of purpose and function internally on a monthly basis, it was easy to provide that information to the county.

“It’s important to maintain flexibility in how we move money around,” Tata said. “That’s the rub when we get the state budget, to be able move money to fill gaps.”

Tata does not foresee decreased flexibility with county money due to reporting.

It’s not the first time commissioners have asked for the information. In 2008, the Republican majority on the commission approved a similar ordinance, except that it was a requirement, not a request. After elections and some pushback from education officials, the ordinance was removed in 2009.

Coble said this time, the ordinance was worded as a request instead of a requirement to “be polite,” especially considering past animosity between the two boards.

The county commission is scheduled to approve the budget during its meeting Monday.

jwig@raleighpublicrecord.org
bleclaire@raleighpublicrecord.org

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