Durham school leaders propose $408M spending plan

Apr. 24, 2014 @ 11:04 PM

Durham Public Schools employees would get a 2-percent raise and classroom teachers would get a one-time $500 bonus under the $408 million budget proposed Thursday.

The raise would match whatever pay increase the state eventually settles on for state employees and, as a result, could be higher, lower or scrapped altogether.

The school board won’t ask the County Commissioners for any additional funding, and instead will turn to its ample $19.7 million fund balance to pay for investments in teachers, classroom supports and growth in student enrollment.

The district will balance its budget using more than $10.8 million from its fund balance, spending it down to about $8.8 million.

An auditor has recommended that the district keep a fund balance of at least $16 million.  

Aaron Beaulieu, the school district’s chief financial officer, said operating a school district the size of DPS with a fund balance of less than $10 million is challenging because it leaves the district with about one month’s worth of operating funds.

He also warned that the district won’t have such a large fund balance to lean on next year.

“If we have to use another $10 million next year, it kind of puts us in the hole,” Beaulieu said.

School officials said they would not ask the county for more than the $111.1 million local appropriation it received this year as part of the board’s pledge to rebuild trust with county commissioners.

That trust was shattered last year after it was discovered that the school district was flush with a nearly $20 million unassigned fund balance.

The discovery came several months after the school board, unaware of the hefty fund balance, pressed commissioners for an additional $4.7 million to cover enrollment growth tied to projected charter school growth, among other items.

The discovery of the extra money angered and embarrassed school board members and eventually cost then-Superintendent Eric Becoats his job. 

Under the new budget proposal, the school district will add 60 teaching positions at a cost of $3.6 million and spend $480,000 on teaching assistant positions, although that doesn’t necessarily mean more positions will be added.

The added teaching posts are in anticipation of an enrollment growth of about 600 students, about 350 for Durham Public Schools and the remainder for charter schools.

Durham will get one new charter school, which could enroll between 60 and 144 students, depending on whom one asks.

Funding for charter schools will increase by $716,000 on top of the $15 million that already passes through the school district to those schools.

School board member Nancy Cox said the board needs to have a frank discussion about the resources flowing from DPS to charter schools.

“I am not convinced as a taxpayer that I need the Durham Public Schools system to absorb the cost of additional charter school students, especially as a taxpayer when I see we are funding schools that have very small operations,” she said.

Because of the costs, Cox said the community would not support DPS if it decided to open dozens of schools with small enrollments.

“Unless there has been a change of heart, the community would not get behind us if we suggested funding schools at 275, 140, 70, [students],” Cox said. “So, why should we fund that?”

The proposed one-time, $500 bonuses for teachers are courtesy of $4.7 million in lapsed salaries from the current school year and would cost about $1.5 million.

The proposal also calls for spending about $250,000 to support the arts and $530,000 on Read to Achieve, the state-mandated program that requires school districts to give special help to third-grade students who are not reading at grade level.

Also under the plan, the district would spend $725,000 on staff development and another $725,000 on facility maintenance at schools.

School board member Omega Curtis Parker took issue with the plan to only give the bonuses to teachers and argued that media coordinators also deserve to receive bonuses.

“I cannot see how we can justify putting these people in a different category,” said Parker, a retired media coordinator.

School board member Fredrick Davis said he supports including them to avoid creating a divisive atmosphere among employees.

“For me, going out of here, I don’t think you want that kind of divisiveness among your employees,” Davis said.

The budget includes $1.1 million in savings by reducing the district’s travel budget by $100,000 and energy bills by $300,000.

The proposed spending plan represents a 3.5 percent decrease over the current $422 million budget due to some federal grants phasing out, as well as capital funding from the 2003 and 2007 bonds.

State funding, driven by the projected enrollment growth, will increase by nearly 3 percent, from $182.4 million this school year to $187.8 next school year.

Meanwhile, federal funding will decrease by about 23 percent, from $31 million to $23.9 million, mainly due to the phasing out of federal school improvement grants and the Race to the Top grant.

The board has scheduled a public hearing to give citizens a chance to comment on the budget on May 1 at 6:30 p.m. at the Fuller Administration building downtown.

The board is expected to adopt the budget at a meeting on May 12 and deliver it to the county by May 15.