Durham schools embark on budget work

Mar. 14, 2014 @ 05:54 PM

It’s still early in the process, but the Durham Public Schools budget is slowly taking shape.

Last week, the DPS Board of Education’s administrative services committee got preliminary staffing and enrollment numbers for the 2014-15 school year that calls for another 23.5 teachers to accommodate growth.

The new teachers would include 14 regular classroom teachers and 9.5 art, music and physical-education teachers for an enrollment growth of more than 500 students.

Although the state will pick up some of the cost of the additional teachers, adding them will still cost the district money, which the board has committed to absorbing with existing resources.

Board members and school administrators discussed the budget with an eye toward submitting it to County Commissioners by May 15.

Locally, the school district doesn’t expect more funds from the county above the $113 million received last year. The local contribution to the district’s budget is slightly more than a fourth of DPS’ $425 million annual budget.

“That’s come from internal conversation with county staff who, in the wake of our fund balance, they’re expecting that we bring forward a flat budget,” said Aaron Beaulieu, the district’s chief financial officer.

The district is flush with a $19 million fund balance that was a few months ago the source of much controversy, and proved to be the denouement in the tumultuous, drama-filled year of former superintendent Eric Becoats. He resigned under pressure in December.

The discovery of the bloated fund balance angered board members who had gone to commissioners with hat-in-hand to ask for an additional $4.8 million to make ends meet last year not knowing about the windfall in the fund balance. Commissioners forked over half of the request, $2.4 million.

The fund balance gave some residents the impression that the school district has an unlimited source of money.

But Beaulieu warns that this year’s budget is propped up by $7 million from the fund balance and that next year’s budget could require the district to take as much as $10 million from the account.

“At the current pace of balancing the budget with the fund balance, that $19 million will only last two years,” Beaulieu said.

He said the board will have about $3 million to spend between now and the end of the fiscal year as a result of 150 positions that went unfilled this year.

“What we’ve got to decide is (will we use) that to meet some needs or for some one-time purchase or do we hold it aside, do we commit it or roll it over into the unassigned fund balance?” Beaulieu said. “It’s a double-edged sword here, but when you average 150 to 152 vacancies, it’s creating some funds that none of us want to see, because we want to be fully staffed.”

Beaulieu said $750,000 of the $3 million in lapsed salaries is tentatively earmarked for facility services, leaving the board with $2.25 million for whatever one-time use it might decide upon.

Interim Superintendent Hugh Osteen said he would like to consider using a portion of the money to reward teachers.

“I would love for us to look at something we could do for our teachers, even if it’s one-time,” Osteen said.

Other budget pressures include a proposed state pay increase for early-career teachers.

The district is assuming that Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed pay increase for early-career teachers will amount to 7.14 percent.

If that holds true, the district would be on the hook for an additional $1.2 million in salary, local supplement and benefit payments to teachers being paid from local funds.

For all other district employees, administrators anticipate a 2 percent state raise that would cost $942,333. They also project a $259,874 increase in retirement pay and hospital insurance, and a $462,686 increase in utilities compared to this fiscal year.   

As per its adopted budget priorities and guiding principles, the board has committed to maintaining non-salary allotments to individual schools.