DPS, county disagree over definition of flat budget request

Jun. 16, 2014 @ 02:29 PM

School board members and county commissioners seem to have different interpretations about what constitutes a flat budget request for Durham Public Schools.
While some school board members believe the quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters and earmarked for schools is an add-on, county commissioners see it as part of the county’s base appropriation to Durham Public Schools.
School Board Chairwoman Heidi Carter told commissioners Monday that school board members have never lumped the quarter-cent sales tax in with the traditional county appropriation.
Carter said DPS and the county need to work on a formula to ensure the school district’s per-pupil funding doesn’t decrease as enrollment increases and other costs rise.
“As other expenses go up and as we get more students, if there were a way to have a formula that ensures the per-pupil funding stays constant, that would greatly benefit us,” Carter said.
Carter made her comments Monday during a joint meeting between the commissioners and school board to discuss the school district’s request for $111.9 million in local funding as part of its $408 million spending plan for the 2014-15 school year.
The quarter-cent sales tax would yield another $7.7 million for the school district, which is about $630,000 more than it did the previous year.
That brings the total local appropriation to the school district to $119.6 million for those who view the sales tax as part of the county’s base funding for public schools and not as an add-on.
Commissioner Ellen Reckhow sees the quarter-cent sales tax revenue as part the base local appropriation to DPS.
“It’s taxing our citizens for money for the schools and the good thing is that it’s hard-wired to the schools and it’s expected to grow,” Reckhow said, referring to revenue from the quarter-cent sales tax. “To say it’s just some extra bonus money that doesn’t get brought in as part of the equation when we’re looking at how much money the school district gets would be a wrong assumption because we have to think about it.”
Reckhow added: “It’s a large amount of money and it’s an important amount of money and to not think about it at all, that it doesn’t exist somehow, would be inappropriate.”
Driving the discussion was a separate request from school officials for an extra $716,000 to fund nearly 300 new charter school students next school year.
The school district already passes more than $15 million in local funding to charter schools.
School board member Leigh Bordley said she and her colleagues don’t consider revenue from the quarter-cents sales tax to be a inconsequential.
But Bordley said the board believes that voters had another purpose in mind when they approved the sales tax.
“What I believe is that when citizens approved the quarter-cent sales tax, they believed they were providing additional funds for public education,” Bordley said. “That’s how it was marketed. That’s how it was understood and if it’s supplanting local appropriation funding, then it’s not additional funds.”
Reckhow took issue with the notion that the board was supplanting local funding with quarter-cent sales tax revenue.
“We’re not supplanting anything in that our General Fund allotment has never gone down after the sales tax,” Reckhow said.
She also took issue with the school board’s observation that per-pupil spending had decreased.
Citing time constraints and the unlikelihood that the disagreement could be resolved on Monday, County Commissioner Chairman Michael Page closed the discussion and suggested that it be added to the agenda of the boards’ next quarterly meeting. 
County commissioners are expected to approve the county’s spending plan by June 30.