Unless you were listening carefully, you may have missed an astounding admission by the Wake County School Board earlier this month – a “fiscal cliff” is on the horizon.
“Fiscal cliff” are the words used by the school board in the latest WCPSS budget management meeting to describe the impending disaster awaiting Wake County Public Schools. After years of budgetary mismanagement, the school board’s bad policies are catching up to them. Next year, North Carolina public schools will no longer be “held-harmless” for Covid impacts, meaning NC school boards will no longer be operating at 2019 budget levels. Thousands of families left the public school system in pursuit of options that supported quality education over mandates. The 6 percent drop in student enrollment over the last two pandemic years equates to a corresponding 6 percent drop in budget … and that will be a tough pill to swallow for a school board which has spent taxpayer money like it’s an endless gravy train.
So how will your elected representatives combat their own budget malfeasance? By using federal funds to mask their failures, of course.
On March 15th, the board briefed the Wake County Commissioners their plan to carry over $220 million in unspent Covid relief funds in order to soften the blow of the impending “fiscal cliff”. Instead of using the federal funds (CARES Act) for its intended purpose, to address educational learning loss, the board is engaging in a pseudo money-laundering scheme to cover their fiscal irresponsibility. Consider the mess the WCPSS school board has created:
The board’s budgetary negligence has resulted in unchecked educational declines, the likes of which Wake County has never seen. While academic growth has been on the decline since the current board took power eight years ago, the last two years of mandates and shutdowns has left Wake public education in dire straits. Hundreds of millions in federal Covid relief funds, intended to combat pandemic related declines in education, could have been used to help.
Instead, here’s how the board spent the federal Covid relief funds. Only thirty percent of the funds were spent directly on students. Almost the same amount spent on students was used toward salaries and bonuses. Forty-three percent of the funds were directed toward programs that showed little to no effectiveness in combating learning loss. Most of those programs were in place prior to the pandemic and did not constitute a necessity of additional federal funding.
Because there are no line-item audits for the WCPSS budget, no accountability or transparency exists to how those funds were actually spent, or that its use was effective. With WCPSS’ apparent waste of the federal funds, Wake County students experienced unprecedented learning loss. Thirty percent of third graders in 2021 did not meet standards to progress to the fourth grade. Almost twenty percent of ninth graders did not progress to the tenth grade in 2021, double pre-pandemic levels. Reading and math proficiency dropped to all-time lows, and minority and low-income students suffered the most. Less than 50 percent of all Wake County students are proficient in reading and math today. Learning loss is destroying educational opportunity in Wake County.
Of particular note is the lack of empathy the board has shown toward minority and low-income families that desperately needed those federal funds. As learning loss hit those families hardest, the funds should have been used to offer tutoring options to these families in the form of direct-benefit payments. I have been advocating for this type of plan for quite some time. Not only would this have directly impacted student learning, but it would have taken pressure off of teachers to overcome learning loss all on their own, and it would have infused money back into the local economy, most likely to teachers who offered their services for extra tutoring.
Despite unprecedented amounts of federal funding, the board has found its way to a fiscal cliff and record learning loss. One fact remains clear for parents and voters – the board’s spending practices means certain doom for public education in Wake County unless voters choose new board members this November. There is hope. We can change direction in Wake County and begin managing the budget for its intended purposes – to provide an education and opportunity for our children’s future. Find out who is running in your district to challenge your current school board representative, and show them support because without it, we can expect more of the same.
Chip in today and help give schools back to parents.