BY GABE STAROSTA, Staff Writer, News and Observer
Federal stimulus money will help ease the financial pain in Wake County schools this year and next but only partly makes up for state budget cuts in education, county officials said Wednesday.
It’s also a temporary solution with the customary federal strings attached. Wake schools will get $46.4 million in stimulus money, with roughly half for the current fiscal year and the rest next year. The federal lifeline runs out after that.
With the recently passed state budget slicing $35.1 million from Wake schools, the stimulus money is welcome. But those funds are earmarked for special education programs and high-poverty schools and can’t be spent elsewhere, said Donna Hargens, the school district’s chief academic officer.
The school district let go 1,496 employees whose contracts expired June 30. It has since rehired 911 of them, but only about 10 percent were rehired using stimulus dollars, Hargens said.
“We have less money, less recurring revenue, and I don’t think the recovery is going to be as quick as the decline,” Wake schools Superintendent Del Burns said at a joint meeting of the school board and Board of Commissioners. “We’re trying to be proactive about that.”
Because of the strict guidelines that go with federal money, the school district has also been put in the awkward position: cutting a significant number of teachers and staff while simultaneously creating 99 new positions.
The new positions include 53 teaching jobs and 45 math coach positions at Title I schools — those with high levels of free or reduced-price lunch students — plus a single administrative position to manage the math coach staff.
At the same time, more than 550 teachers and staff, out of nearly 1,500 let go, have not been rehired or guaranteed future positions. Hargens said the new positions were not reserved for those let go when their contracts expired, though those former Wake employees could apply for the jobs created or saved by federal money.
“Those 99 positions were created and posted [for consideration] and people were hired, so it may be that some of the people [who were let go June 30] were rehired,” Hargens said.
The rest of the federal money spent so far was used to maintain 100 positions in special needs education — 92 teachers and eight teachers’ assistants.
Wake County received a total of $46.4 million in stimulus funds for education, part of a larger stimulus grant that was distributed by the national Department of Education. Wake’s share is divided into roughly $30 million set aside for special needs education and $16 million designated for 45 Title I schools.
But David Neter, the Wake school district’s chief business officer, warned that the state needs to find additional sources of revenue so the school system is not left with a massive hole in its budget when federal stimulus money runs out.
“The problem with [federal funding] is that it falls off a cliff in two years,” he said.
Despite the money flowing in from Washington, Burns reiterated that students will be feeling the economic pinch through larger class sizes in grades four through 12, fewer offerings of elective courses and a reduction in services such as transportation.
“This is the first year I’ve experienced where there has been a significant impact at the school level,” he said.