The Wake County school board came very close on Tuesday to not having adopted a budget request for the 2012-13 school year.
As noted in today's article, the 6-3 vote in favor the budget proposal was very much in doubt until the roll call vote. Every vote was needed because it took a two-thirds majority to waive a policy that limits Wake from using more than half its fund balance to balance the budget.
Signs of the budget being in trouble came early in the discussion when Democratic board members Kevin Hill and Jim Martin said they couldn't vote yes. They didn't feel that the requested $8.8 million increase from the Wake County Commissioners was enough in light of cuts in recent years.
Hill, the board chairman, pointed to how the budget doesn't restore cuts made last year to custodial service and also includes a $13.96 per student cut in school supplies.
“We can make our school system backslide into a second-class status or we can find the political will to find the resources necessary to repair the damage that has been inflicted in the past five years," Hill said.
Hill said he was concerned that the school system wasn't getting the money it needed because it's being held hostage to this year's political elections. Two of the four Republicans that make up the majority on the commissioners are running for higher office this year.
Martin added that he was concerned the budget was crafted with the thinking that it was much as they could get past the commissioners in this election year.
But fellow Democratic school board member Susan Evans said she felt an $8.8 million increase was realistic in light of the current state of the economy. She said they can't ask the commissioners to give more of what they don't have.
"It's an appropriate budget for this time," Evans said.
Republican board member Chris Malone and Democratic board member Christine Kushner said they could support the budget too.
GOP board member Debra Goldman asked what would happen if they didn't approve the budget Tuesday.
Chief Business Officer David Neter said they're legally required to get a budget request to the county by May 15.
School board vice chairman Keith Sutton, who had taken the gavel so Hill could become an advocate during the discussion, said a special board meeting would be called before May 15 to get a budget passed if needed.
Goldman questioned how they could do that when they haven't back from the commissioners since their March 29 joint meeting if they're amendable to giving the $8.8 million.
"Passing a budget with the magnitude of this one, I’d sure hope it would pass by more than a 5-4 vote," Goldman said.
GOP board member John Tedesco said that, given that staff projects they can replenish the fund balance by another $18 million next year, why they don't just take even more out of the fund balance now. He said they might want to dip into the fund balance to restore the maintenance cuts and/or reduce the requested funding increase by $2 million.
The use of the $28.9 million would leave Wake with about $5 million left in the rainy-day fund.
Neter reminded the board that they not expecting to fully replenish the $28.9 million. He said this means they'll already start the 2013-14 budget in a fiscal hole.
GOP school board Deborah Prickett pointed to the need to have a good working relationship with commissioners, some of whom like Tony Gurley have questioned whether the school district should have a fund balance.
“The relationship is just where it doesn’t need to be regarding fund balance," Prickett said.
Prickett brought up the heated discussion that Gurley and Martin had after the joint meeting.
“It’s kind of a shame that it went in this direction,” Prickett said of the argument.
"We have to work together," Prickett added. "They provide a lot of our funding. They’re very important for the operation of our schools."
The momentum of the conversation shifted when Neter said they can look at ways to reduce the cut in school instructional supplies and to potentially increase maintenance spending. With those assurances, Martin and Hill said they could now vote for the budget.
But passage wasn't secured until Malone voted yes with the five Democrats.
After the vote, Malone pointed to the need to adopt the budget by May 15 to comply with state law. He also said it was a "pragmatic" budget that recognized they had to make hard decisions to meet the school system's needs.
“It was the right thing to do. I wanted to vote with my fellow conservatives, but they’re wrong,” Malone said.
Also after the vote, Goldman argued that the board hadn't spent enough time discussing the budget to call for a vote.
"When you're about to vote on a billion-dollar budget, you better have all your questions answered," Goldman said.