Proposed school budget keeps assistants for now, but drains district savings

Apr. 25, 2013 @ 10:10 PM

Thanks to federal sequestration cuts, the budget shortfall for Durham Public Schools - originally projected at about $12 million - climbed to $15.2 million.

And, thanks to the first proposed budget from Gov. Pat McCrory, cuts in state funding would've left DPS unable to pay for 80 teacher assistant positions.

But Superintendent Eric Becoats on Thursday presented the Board of Education with his own proposed $408 million budget that would make up for the shortfall gap with money from the general fund, savings from spending freezes and, if approved, assistance from the Durham County Commission.

The budget would preserve the teacher assistants for the 2013-14 academic year, maintain current staffing levels and allow the district to move forward with initiatives, such as the new School for Creative Studies magnet school on the old Chewning Middle School campus.

"Our schools and students are making strong progress, but state and federal funding constraints are continuing to impact our ability to provide services," Becoats said. "We are making our students a priority, and are preserving the teacher assistant positions that are critical to our focus on early literacy."

About $3 million of the shortfall gap would be closed by tapping into the district's $9 million general fund, Becoats said.

"That is not the way I think we should operate on a continual basis," he said.

During Thursday's board meeting, Becoats put significant emphasis on the demographics served by DPS in comparison with state funding support.

In DPS schools, he said, 63.4 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. Students with limited English proficiency make up 14.2 percent of the student population, but the state caps funding at 10.6 percent. Slightly less than 20 percent of DPS students qualify for academically and intellectually gifted services, but those funds are capped by the state at 4 percent, he said.

In total, the state government actually supplies only about 42 percent of overall DPS funding, which struck board member Natalie Beyer as unfair since the North Carolina state constitution mandates a quality education for its children.

Board members now will review the proposal. They'll hold a public hearing and work session at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. A week later, May 8, they'll attend another work session at 4:30 p.m. May 13, the board is expected to adopt the budget proposal, which will then go to the County Commission for final approval.

In other board news:

- Principal Renee Price informed the board that 400 students have applied for 300 slots available at the new School for Creative Studies magnet school. The district has received more than 1,000 applications from throughout the United States for faculty and staff positions, Price said.

- The board approved early dismissal days for middle school students taking the new Common Exams June 3 and 4 and for high school students taking those exams based on their various calendars. Middle schools will release two hours early on those days.

However, board members made it clear they're not happy with the inconvenience and stress that comes with these tests, which ultimately are used to evaluate the teachers administering them.

Teachers need extra time because the exams aren't totally fill-in-the-bubble sheets one can slide through a computer scanner. Instead, they include written responses that are expected to take between three and six hours to assess, said James Key, DPS area superintendent for high schools.

Heidi Carter, board chair, expressed concern about making teachers work hours they're not paid for to grade exams that could be used against them in evaluations.

The exams are required by the state because DPS received federal Race to the Top funds. Opting out isn't an option, Becoats said, without losing money - something the district can ill afford just now.

"This is not a situation entirely under our control," said board member Leigh Bordley.

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