Finding funds for what’s important

Apr. 25, 2014 @ 04:35 PM

The Durham County Board of Education has fielded its share of challenges this school year. The most recent has been wrestling with the 2014-15 budget in these tight economic times.

Recognizing that employees are long overdue for raises, the board has included in its $408 million budget a plan that would match any raises given to state employees. That means Durham Public Schools would match what state-funded employees are seeing for employees who are funded locally or through other sources.
Classroom teachers also would get a one-time $500 bonus under the plan, ensuring that they would see at least a modest increase in their income in the next fiscal year. We appreciate board member Omega Curtis Parkers point that media coordinators should be included, but going down that path raises questions about bonuses for guidance counselors, teacher assistants, social workers, etc. We see the proposed plan as a starting point, and worry that expanding it beyond classroom teachers would make it financially unwieldy and diffuse the intent. We hope there will be room for inclusion of other system employees in the next budget.
The board is trying some previously unexplored routes to pay for what it views as important for education in Durham County.
The board has stuck to its promise not to seek any additional funding from the county commissioners following officials’ discovery last fall – after the board had sought additional funds from commissioners to cover enrollment growth and other items -- that there was more money in DPS’s unassigned fund balance.
As a result, the board this year has found other ways to cover costs. The bonuses, for example, would be covered by lapsed salaries from the current school year.
The board also has opted to dip into its $19.7 million fund balance to cover costs. While DPS Chief Financial Officer Aaron Beaulieu’s concerns about using that money should be given serious weight, the fact remains that there is a need for the funds now. There are few if any other options to meet the funding priorities.
Next year’s school board will have to wrestle with the implications from this board’s decision. Beaulieu warns that if next year the board again turns to the fund balance, it could put the system in the hole. And we should note that an audit recommended maintaining a fund balance of $16 million.
In more flush times, when the system is receiving more funds from other sources, perhaps that makes sense. But in a time when the board is trying to be good fiscal stewards while also advocating for all the resources needed for a successful school system, there only seems to be one way out from between the rock and the hard place. We’re glad they’ve opted for this course.