Orange County Schools budget focuses on equity, parental leave and last year’s cuts

Orange County Schools had to make cuts last year. This year, the district is asking the county for enough money to restore some of what it lost and implement new programs.

The district is asking Orange County for $36.1 million, a little over $2 million or 8% more in local funding than it got this school year.

Last year, the district requested $35.4 million and got $33.5 million. It used almost $1.8 million from its fund balance, a rainy-day account, to make up the difference.

This year, County Manager Bonnie Hammersley has recommended $35.3 million for the district. The Board of Education finalizes how to spend the money once the county commissioners approve the budget in June.

The district also expects over $47 million in state money and $11 million from federal grants, school nutrition and after-school funding, among other sources.

Cuts and continuation

The district’s request for next year includes over $800,000 in continuation funding, or money required to continue current services. Orange County Schools expects to add 43 students next year, bringing enrollment to 7,388, and faces state-mandated salary and benefit increases.

The district did pursue new initiatives this year. It began a dual language program at New Hope Elementary School, offered free breakfast in every elementary school and provided over 13,000 meals during the summer. The continuation funding would provide for these programs.

The school system also plans to use this money to hire an equity director, a new position. Rhonda Rath, the district’s chief financial officer, said they were able to reassign a vacant director position to make room for the equity director.

Superintendent Todd Wirt recently announced he will step down this summer. Rath said the district, which is partnering with the N.C. Schools Boards Association to replace him, doesn’t know how much the search will ultimately cost or how it will be funded yet.

The cost of finding a new Orange County Schools superintendent to replace Todd Wirt (right, with board member Steve Halkiotis, will come out of the coming school year’s budget. Mark Schultz mschultz@newsobserver.com

Expansion funding

The rest of the district’s request, another $1.2 million, is expansion funding. Usually, expansion funding goes to new programs, but this year’s request also includes restoring some of last year’s cuts.

Budget cuts last year led to larger classes, eliminated nearly three weeks of paid teacher work days for teacher assistants and reduced the number of district staff by more than 20 positions.

Will Atherton, who recently became the board chair, said the cuts were largely due to state funding cuts and loss of students to charter schools. Charter school enrollment among district students is projected to increase from 823 students to 850 next year.

There are 14 teacher work days built into the school year, which teachers use to plan lessons, prepare rooms and sometimes meet with parents or students. Last year, the board decided teacher assistants would not work or be paid for these days, but it hopes to restore 10 work days.

The district also wants to restore smaller class sizes in grades four through eight.

The new initiatives the district hopes to pursue include equity training and paid parental leave, as well as hiring someone to lead diverse recruiting efforts, two more counselors, a literacy facilitator and a custodial supervisor.

Board member Brenda Stephens emphasized the benefit of paid parental leave in recruiting and retaining teachers.

“Oftentimes, parents return to work too soon because their sick leave is exhausted,” Stephens said. “A number of studies have shown that paternity leave has positive effects on a child later in life.”

Atherton said the parental leave would also apply to fathers and adoptions.

Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools are both requesting money for paid parental leave, and Atherton said that will help increase unity across the county.

The new equity director would be responsible for equity trainings and measuring progress.

“There wasn’t any specific plan before,” Atherton said. “There could have been a few people trained here and there, but it wasn’t systemic.”

Both school systems plan to team up for portions of their equity training next year, Atherton said.

The district is also requesting funding for tuition assistance for staff members pursuing a teaching certificate. Rath said the $81,000 requested will provide tuition assistance to 10 staff members. This tuition assistance would be available for anyone working for the district, from bus drivers to teacher assistants, and will help the district attract and retain community members, Atherton said.

A community group called Justice United has pushed the district to pursue diverse hiring for two years.

Next steps

The Board of County Commissioners has four work sessions between now and June 30 to finalize the budget. There will be three regular meetings before the final budget at which community members may speak.

Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.