April 12, 2012

School expenses, county revenues drift apart

After spending less per student in each of the past four years, Wake County’s school leaders were hoping to scratch out a bit more support next year from county commissioners.

But their proposal, made last month by Superintendent Tony Tata, has already run into significant headwinds. Without denying the district’s request outright for $8.8 million, county leaders have made it clear recently that they don’t expect to have that much to spend on growth.

That was followed this week by updated figures showing a total of $2.75 million in lost state revenue, additional bus costs and a few other items. In short, the budget gap is drifting apart rather than closing.

While the idea was mentioned of asking commissioners for additional money, getting that money seems unlikely.

During a recent economic update at a joint meeting of school board members and commissioners, County Manager David Cooke said he expects to have about $6.2 million in additional sales and property tax revenue to cover growth next year. There is a lot of company on the list of projects competing for that money.

While it’s possible to raise more money through a tax increase, no one expects that to happen in a year when three commissioners and three school board members are running for state offices. So the county’s current revenue predictions are the only ones to work with for now. Commissioners provide about a quarter of the funding for the school district’s $1.25 billion budget.


For those looking for a silver lining, there is this: Wake is seeing growth, which is better than no growth. But it is going to take some time before the schools – as well as others who rely on county funding – will escape the shadows of the 2009 recession.

The number of building permits issued by the county, which is an excellent indicator of future property tax growth, is mostly flat since 2009. Sales tax revenue is projected to grow about 2 percent this year. The number of employed people in Wake County is still slightly lower than it was at its peak in 2008.

But the population of Wake, and by extension public school enrollment, has continued to grow.

School leaders expect to get a final answer from county commissioners about local funding by June 18.

Technical education center finds support

A proposal to jointly operate a high school with Wake Technical Community College offering career and technical classes is receiving broad support from county leaders.

First proposed at a joint meeting two weeks ago with county commissioners, the school would be located at the former Coca-Cola Bottling Facility, 2200 S. Wilmington St. in Raleigh. Opening for the 2013-2014 school year, the center could enroll as many as 700 high school students during the day and 1,000 community college students after hours.

High school students would also have the opportunity to earn community college credit.

Some significant details have not yet been determined, such as the cost of the project and whether students would attend the school full-time or as part of a half-day program. A half day-program would allow more students access to the specialized programs without giving up the experience of a traditional high school, but that approach would not create additional seats for the money.

The general idea, however, gained quick support from both commissioners and school board members.

A majority of school board members did suggest students be required to wait until at least their sophomore year before attending classes at the center. The freshmen year, they said, can already be challenging without adding a large number of non-traditional classes.

But the possibility of preparing students for immediate jobs was clearly appealing given the broad range of course offerings such as heating and air conditioning, biopharmaceuticals, plumbing, simulation game development and cosmetology.

Wake’s traditional middle and high schools already offer career and technical education classes with enrollments topping 77,000 this year. But a center such as this would provide access to more courses that would be too expensive to replicate at each school.

While the chance to earn community college credit is seen as a benefit to high school students, the opportunity to increase program offerings is seen as a benefit for Wake Tech.

The board is scheduled to discuss additional details at its next regular meeting on April 24th.


District closes final round of school choice

The third and final round of school choice registration closes today following the announcement of several new programs for next year and some questions about the plan from Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

With the vast majority of parents having already decided where they want their children to attend school next year, the overall numbers aren’t expected to change much after the final registration period ends at 10 p.m. today.

About 97 percent of students chose to stay in their current school, accepted a “pre-assignment” to a new sixth or ninth grade, or received their first or second choice in earlier registration periods.

Most of the students who participated in the earlier choice rounds were kindergarten families – who had to make a selection – or rising middle and high school students who did not want their “pre-assigned” school. Among the middle and high school students, about 76 percent of rising sixth graders and 80 percent of rising ninth graders were placed in their first or second choices.

But even small percentages of students represent a lot of people in the nation’s 16th largest school district.

Many of the complaints can be traced to the district’s desire to tightly control school capacities – a significant problem in prior years that often led to severe overcrowding and frequent reassignments.

Because the current plan promises families they will not be reassigned, Superintendent Tony Tata has been extremely reluctant to over-enroll schools. Instead, he has emphasized new programs to attract families to schools that have space.

In the short run, the adherence to capacity limits has created longer waiting lists than expected. It has also forced families who are not yet assigned to wait longer than predicted while the district waits for seats to open up – a virtual guarantee given the transition rate of families.  

The uncertainty caused by that waiting prompted Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane to voice concerns this week about the ability to attract businesses during a period when every parent can’t know for sure what school their children will attend.

In response, Tata suggested the system might revisit the question of strict capacity limits. There is a general shortage of seats throughout Wake County, but the shortfalls are most significant in Raleigh and Apex.

In response to those issues and others, school board members this week decided to spend more time reviewing the district’s student transfer policy to create as much flexibility as possible in granting parents their school choices.

The new transfer policy is scheduled for approval April 24. Transfer requests can be filed between May 15 and June 1.


Does art make you smart?

Do the arts make kids smarter or are smart kids just more likely to immerse themselves in subjects like theater, dance, music and painting?

Several reports and articles published recently highlight the relationship between higher student achievement and involvement in the arts -- from the individual school level to a National Endowment for the Arts study suggesting an intensive arts program can help close the achievement gap.

The reports were published about the same time the U.S. Department of Education released findings from the first nationwide arts survey in a decade that documents the state of arts education in America’s public schools.

Despite recent budget cuts, music and visual art have not declined significantly in the past decade, according to the report. However, theater and dance classes in elementary schools have dropped noticeably and more than 40 percent of secondary schools do not require a single arts class to graduate.

The shortcomings are most obvious in low-income schools, which are notable partly because low-income students appear to be the ones who benefit most from a curriculum that is rich in arts, according to the NEA study.

Researchers for the NEA study cautioned that it was impossible to tell if the arts motivate students in other areas or if motivated students are simply the ones drawn to arts classes. Regardless, “there is a remarkably strong association between participation in the arts and a wide variety of positive outcomes,” the report said.

And such outcomes can apparently happen anywhere, based on a recent article in the Orlando Sentinel that highlight repeated academic success for students at the Osceola County School for the Arts in Florida.

“Initially, some questioned whether Osceola, once known for ‘cows and cowboys,’ could sustain such a place,” the article said, with one teacher repeating an early joke that anyone who could play the kazoo could be enrolled.

That’s not true anymore as the school is now among the system’s most popular and academically successful – a place where parents have decided it’s plenty smart to have lots of art.


… School administrators continued to field questions this week about whether William Peace University is the best location for new single gender leadership academies scheduled to open in the fall. (video: 13:30) The questions arose primarily from school board members Susan Evans, Jim Martin and Peace graduates who spoke at this week’s meeting. During a presentation to the board, staff members said the first group of high school students would be housed in six classrooms at Peace. Classes for middle school students in the academies will held at the nearby Governor Morehead School campus.

… After several weeks of debate, school board members approved a modified school bell schedule that will save less in busing costs, but also create fewer dramatic changes in school starting and ending times. The final bell schedules are expected to save be $4.8 million a year in transportation costs.

StemExpo … The Wake County school district’s first STEM Expo will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Southeast Raleigh High School in partnership with NC State University. Students and others at the expo will present projects highlighting the importance of science, technology, engineering and math. Interactive demonstrations will be used to illustrate how STEM skills and knowledge prepare students for college and career.



Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues and serving as a strong advocate for student achievement and world-class academic standards. Most of its financial support comes from individuals and local businesses. Please send comments or questions to Tim Simmons, VP of Communications, at tsimmons@wakeedpartnership.org or visit our website at www.wakeedpartnership.org.