Ask the Superintendent: State funding vs. local needs

May. 13, 2013 @ 10:40 AM

At a school board meeting yesterday, the Durham Public Schools Board of Education adopted its budget request for the 2013-14 school year. The Durham County Board of Commissioners will now review this request and determine the county appropriation that, along with state and federal funding, enables us to operate our schools and teach our children.
As we developed our budget proposal for the school board, we solicited feedback from the community. In this month’s column, I will address some of the questions we received.
Q: Does the state provide enough funding to fully support our students with special needs?
A: It would be nice if it did!
The state provides us funding based on enrollment formulas—a certain amount for each student. Exceptional Children, Academically/Intellectually Gifted children, and Limited English Proficiency (LEP) children all require additional services, and receive additional state funding, but only to a point. After that, the burden falls on our school districts to fill the gap with local funding.
Almost 20 percent of Durham Public Schools students are identified as Academically/Intellectually Gifted, yet the state only funds four percent of them. We have more than 14 percent that need LEP services; the state only funds 10.6 percent. There is also a narrow gap for Exceptional Children. If the state fully funded all of our eligible students, it would make a $7.3 million difference for our students and schools.
Q: In your budget proposal, you recommended using textbook funding to offset the governor’s proposal to eliminate teacher assistant positions. Don’t our classrooms need textbooks as well?
A: Our teacher assistant positions are critical to supporting our early elementary classrooms, especially due to our intense focus on early literacy. Anyone who has ever visited a first-grade classroom knows the difference a teacher assistant makes in teaching children to read fluently and keep up with our rigorous curriculum. Our budget advisory committee and school board emphasized that teacher assistants must be a priority.
The state cut its funding for textbooks in 2009-10 as the economic recession deepened. This year, the governor’s budget restores that funding, but with the Department of Public Instruction’s permission we can reallocate that funding toward teacher assistants. Between that funding and the use of our fund balance (savings), we can maintain these positions for another year.
Q: What is a fund balance, and how can you use these savings to protect these positions?
A: A simple way to think about our fund balance is to consider your checking and savings accounts. From month to month, you would hope to have enough cash available to pay for future expenses. You might set aside a tax refund for a new cellphone, or cut back on spending for a few months for more significant home maintenance.
Like other school systems and local governments across our state, DPS maintains a fund balance that restricts certain funding for specific uses as well as maintaining an unrestricted fund balance for emergencies. Since the recession, we have had to use some of that fund balance each year to close the gap between what we must spend to serve our students and the funding available from the state and county.
However, just as in your household, money that we spend from savings cannot help us meet the next year’s expenses. We replenish our fund balance as much as we can during the school year by freezing planned spending. This year we are saving $4 million from our Central Services through deferred purchases and not filling some noncritical vacant positions. Our proposal to the school board recommended bringing our fund balance down to $6 million. Less than that would leave our school district at risk if a crisis disrupted our schools.
County charter and DPS student enrollment combined is growing (charters receive a share of our local funding). Insurance and benefit costs continue to rise year after year. State funding is likely to decline in key areas. Our budget request asks for sufficient funding to maintain existing services for another year. To maintain our schools’ continuous improvement after that, we must find ways to ensure that our students receive the resources that will provide the high-quality education they deserve.
Dr. Eric J. Becoats is superintendent of Durham Public Schools. He answers readers’ questions in his column the second Tuesday of each month. Submit your questions to superintendent@dpsnc.net.