N.C. Town Forms Foundation To Give More to Schools

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In an era when many communities begrudge the money that goes to public schools, the town of Cary, N.C., might just be an anomaly. The 98,000-resident suburb of Raleigh has money to spare, and officials there would like to share their prosperity with students.

To that end, the Town Council has proposed giving $3.7 million to improve the Wake County schools because, in its view, the state and the school system aren't doing enough.

If it proceeds with its plan, Cary would be the first North Carolina municipality to provide funding to the schools beyond what is required, according to Linda Fuller, a spokeswoman for the state education department. "Cary is on the cutting edge," she said.

Only last week, Cary residents gathered in a public forum to discuss how they would like to see their money spent in the schools. Many are concerned about the facilities—about one-third of the students attend class in trailers or other nonstandard classrooms—as well as class size and technology, according to Cary Mayor Glen Lang.

"Traditionally, the state and county have been responsible for providing education for students in Cary," said Mr. Lang, but "many residents don't feel that the county and state have done an adequate job, and [feel] that our children aren't achieving to their potential."

To address those issues, Cary established the nonprofit Cary Education Foundation. Beginning next year, Cary each year would donate a certain amount of money—drawn from property taxes—to the foundation based on school enrollment. Currently, 18,500 children from Cary attend schools in the 95,000-student Wake County system, and the town plans to spend $200 for each of them in the first year. The money would follow the child to his or her school.

Principals would request money from the 15-member Cary Education Foundation board by submitting annual proposals outlining specific projects or needs. The maximum amount awarded would be based on the number of Cary children enrolled in the particular school.

"We want our children to excel on the global stage, and we have the right to do what is necessary to do that," Mayor Lang said.

Private, Too?

Questions linger about how the money would be distributed and to whom, but the Town Council is expected to pass the plan and work out the details later.

It has not been determined whether private, parochial, or home-schooled students would be eligible, for example. The council has decided those decisions "are better left to the [foundation] board," said Mr. Lang.

The issue of the legality of the proposal also looms over the council. The town could face a legal challenge from local taxpayers. But armed with a favorable opinion from the state's largest law firm, Mr. Lang maintains that the link between high-quality schools and Cary's ability to attract businesses make the plan legally justifiable.

A Catalyst

Stan Norwalk is one resident who supports the initiative. A retiree who moved to Cary six years ago, he believes the Wake County system is not doing all it could to manage overcrowding.

Although the foundation may not resolve all the system's problems, Mr. Norwalk said, he expects it to be a catalyst for problem-solving. "The foundation displays leadership that I hope others will pay attention to," Mr. Norwalk said.

The county school system views the effort as a novel and welcome approach, said Stella Shelton, a spokeswoman for the district.

Public schools in North Carolina are financed by the state, the federal government, and a portion of local taxes, Ms. Shelton said. "We acknowledge the generosity of Cary to education, and we hope that other municipalities step up to the plate," she said.

Wake County serves 12 municipalities, including Raleigh, and spends $5,300 per student. Most of the district's $700 million proposed budget for 2000-01 would go toward day-to-day operations of its schools.

David Coley, the principal of the 1,800-student Cary High School, sees the foundation as groundbreaking. "It's definitely throwing down the gauntlet for other towns to step up and increase their input," he said.

Michael Fedewa, the superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, said he supports the town's actions. But the foundation must include all children for the effort to work, he argued. "If this works, it could set a precedent."

Vol. 19, Issue 36, Page 13

Published in Print: May 17, 2000, as N.C. Town Forms Foundation To Give More to Schools
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