Wake’s Per-Pupil Spending: How Low Can You Go?

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The talking points of Wake County schools 2012-13 budget are that it asks county commissioners for an increase in funding and protects teachers. The quieter truth is that the school system’s overall budget has not increased for five years and 13,000 students have since moved to the county, driving per-pupil spending down.

In per-pupil spending, Wake is at the bottom of North Carolina (96 of 115) and North Carolina is at the bottom of the nation (45th), according to the most recent statistics from NC Department of Public Instruction and the National Education Association.

This year Wake is proposing to spend $8,255 per student, which is well below the national average. But, the schools generally spend less than they budget for. In 2010-11, Wake budgeted $8,307 per student, but spent $7,561.

This data comes from the National Center for Education Statistics and represents fiscal year 2009.

When it comes to the budget, Superintendent Tony Tata often touts a report that suggests Wake is one of the leanest running districts in the nation.

When Chief Financial Officer David Neter uses that word in a sentence it’s usually to say “we’re about as lean as we can get,” as he did at the board’s May 1 meeting. He added, “It would be difficult to cut any further without having a direct impact on people and classrooms.”

Michael Maher of NC State University agrees that it’s not a question of if cuts hurt but when.

“We [Wake County] get pretty good results for the money we’re spending,”Maher said.

But, he said, the question left unanswered in his mind is, could we be doing better with more?

Bigger districts like Wake get less money in state and federal dollars and are forced to fill the gap with county appropriations.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system gets the highest per-pupil amount of county appropriations in the state. Wake ranks 20th in the state in county appropriations, 113th in state money and 108th in federal dollars.

Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools have similar budget trajectories. They are the first and second largest school systems in the state and are month the 20 largest districts in the nation.

The spike in Charlotte’s proposed budget for this year comes from asking the county commissioners for significantly more money. Like Wake, it appears Charlotte won’t get the full funding it asked for.

“I think there could be some really negative outcomes for us,”Maher said. “These type of cuts hurt you in the long term… What are the long term consequences for these children who are entering kindergarten or kids who are in fourth or fifth grade who’ve seen three consecutive years of cuts?”

Maher points to fewer language classes in elementary school as proof of the potential impacts.

“Look at Wake County and how many elementary schools do we now offer second language in? It wasn’t too long ago that we offered second language in most of our schools,” he said.

You can email Will Huntsberry at wehberry@raleighpublicrecord.org or follow him on twitter @willhuntsberry or #wakeschoolboard

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