Tough time for a DPS deficit

Feb. 23, 2013 @ 02:45 PM

We can expect nervous weeks ahead for Durham Public Schools as the budget process revs up for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

On Tuesday, Superintendent Eric Becoats broke the news that DPS faces a projected deficit of at least $12 million – and possibly more.

The severity of the shortfall relies on lawmakers in Washington getting out of their own way long enough to avoid triggering the dreaded sequestration cuts to a swath of interests, including education and military spending.

It would also grow if the General Assembly in Raleigh acts on a proposal to make 2 percent cuts across all agencies. District administrators estimate that would tack another $3.4 million onto the deficit.

The projection supplied to the district’s budget committee earlier this month outlines several sources for the shortfall. They include a $3 million loss that DPS officials attribute to student population growth and public charter schools, $450,000 in technology spending, an expected loss of $500,000 in state transportation funding and $620,400 for additional square footage at Lucas Middle School, which just opened this year.

Concerns about the deficit arise as DPS continues to implement the new Common Core education standards and as the district embarks on a bid to establish five new magnet programs at Holt, Lowe’s Grove, Neal, the School for Creative Studies and Southern School of Energy and Sustainability.

The district is applying for as much as $12 million in federal grant funds for those schools. If DPS can’t land that grant, administrators say they’ll still plunge onward to offer the best magnet programs that they can with the money they can find.

The superintendent must present a budget to the DPS Board of Education on April 21. Then comes a public hearing on May 1. They’re expected to adopt the budget on May 13 before sending it to the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

Becoats said on Tuesday that he would look at “programming and central office operations” to balance the budget.

“Our goal is to make sure we protect classrooms as much as possible,” he said.

It would be unfortunate if DPS must gut itself by cutting innovative programs in our public schools. Right now, those programs seem critical to the district’s strategy to attract more students to schools in a competitive market that includes private academies and a growing number of public-supported charter schools.