Durham school leaders review budget proposal

May. 01, 2013 @ 10:15 PM

The executive director of budget and management for Durham Public Schools isn’t losing sleep…yet.
Last year, the auditing firm for DPS recommended that the district keep at least $16 million in the “rainy day fund” known as the fund balance. It currently sits at about $9.8 million.
But after a third year of dipping into those savings in the budget proposed by Superintendent Eric Becoats, to the tune of about $3.4 million, that fund will be depleted to $6.4 million.
“I’m comfortable for one more year,” budget director Paul LeSieur told members of the Board of Education during Wednesday’s work session. If it drops any lower than that, though, “I start worrying.”
The total budget proposed for 2013-14 comes to $408 million, but comes with a $15.2 million shortfall that district leaders blame on anticipated state funding cuts, unfunded mandates and projected fallout from federal sequestration cuts.
Administrators managed to shift enough money around to cover $12.8 million of that shortfall, including that significant chunk of the fund balance. But they also plan to ask the Durham County Commissioners for an additional $2.4 million to help save 80 of the 500-plus teacher assistant positions that would be lost if Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed state budget passes.
DPS is seeking a total of about $118 million from the county, and that would include $6.9 million in ¼-cent sales tax revenues.
Board member Nancy Cox wondered about using those sales tax dollars “to patch holes in our budget.”
“I thought that was supposed to be icing on the cake,” she said.
LeSieur disagreed: “It’s not icing on the cake. It’s funding for positions.” The money made up for federal funding lost in recent years. “It was about saving teachers,” he said.
That’s how board member Leigh Bordley remembered it, too.
“We would love to think about adding teachers, but right now we’re trying to save teachers,” she said.
Becoats told board members that County Manger Mike Ruffin had indicated “some level of support for keeping our teacher assistants,” but nothing concrete beyond that. He also shared the news that Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield was floating a proposal to cut $900,000 in funding that puts gang-reduction officers in elementary and middle schools (See related story).
During a time when parents expect heightened security, it seemed unwise to Minnie Forte-Brown, the board’s vice chair, to yank funds from such a program.
“Our community is going to respond to that,” she said.
Board Chair Heidi Carter acknowledged that Bonfield, like many other government leaders, is dealing with a tight budget.
“Something is going to have to be reduced,” she said.
If the city pulls those dollars, Becoats said, then DPS probably would ask the county to foot that bill too.
Board member Natalie Beyer worried about the effects that might transpire in a perfect storm of reduced funding. What if the county says no to saving those teacher assistant spots? What if the city says no to the gang-reduction funds? “And then we hear from our friends in the General Assembly,” she said.
What if DPS must dip into the fund balance even further to maintain current levels of service, taking it down below $6 million.
“Now I’m getting to worry,” LeSieur admitted. “All it takes is one catastrophe and we’ll be in a bad predicament.”
The DPS board meets with County Commissioners on Tuesday. The Board of Education is expected to adopt a final budget proposal on May 13, which will then go to County Commissioners for approval.

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