Durham County

Durham school board to consider budget recommendation

The rubber hits the road for the Durham Public Schools Board of Education on Thursday, May 11, when the board will be asked to approve a $430 million spending plan for the 2017-18 school year.

School board members can approve the budget as recommended by the district’s administration, which is unlikely, or recommend adjustments to send the request tipping over the $430 million recommendation.

The latter is a more likely scenario given that teachers, parents and other public schools supporters have demanded a much larger funding request from County Commissioners than the one proposed.

“I’m working to see where we can make some adjustments to include some of the items from the deferred needs list on a larger ask,” said school board Chairman Mike Lee, who is out of town and will not attend the meeting.

The “deferred needs” list presented to the board by the administration includes $6.6 million for items such as pay for parental leave, funding for extra-curricular programs, a substitute teacher pay raise, bus driver incentives and teacher recruitment.

The most expensive of the items is a $2.3 million proposal to increase the minimum wage throughout the school district to $15 an hour.

That would match the minimum or so-called “living” wage already provided to city and county workers.

Lee said the proposal for a $15 an hour living wage and the paternal leave item at a cost of $700,000, are among his priorities, which also include keeping 24 teaching positions that are scheduled for elimination.

It would cost about $1.5 million to keep the 24 teaching positions.

Along with the teaching positions, proposed reductions in school-based personnel, including eight assistant principals and about 25 clerical positions, total $3.1 million.

Combined, the deferred needs and school-based personnel reductions, which have dominated budget discussion in recent weeks, total nearly $10 million.

“I would like to keep all of the teachers and all of the deferred-needs items,” Lee said. “I know that’s not do-able right now. We’re going to have to work with the county commissioners and the community to fill those gaps.”

Meanwhile, School board member Minnie Forte-Brown said she is willing to ask commissioners to fully fund the district’s needs.

“I’m willing to be courageous for our schools and students,” Forte-Brown said. “You don’t defer needs, you defer luxuries. Deferring needs is like ignoring the leak in the house.”

Forte-Brown said the district must keep its teachers and compensate classified workers such as bus drivers on the same level as their counterparts who work for city and county governments.

“I’m listening to the taxpayers,” Forte-Brown said. “My inbox is filled with messages from residents talking about cuts to the budget.”

School board member Steve Unruhe said he does not want to cut teaching or other school-based positions.

“I would love to find a way to not have to do that,” Unruhe said.

But Unruhe said the reality is that in North Carolina, there are many unmet educational needs due to a lack of adequate support coming from the state.

He said it’s the school board’s job to present an “authentic” budget that realistically takes into consideration likely available local and state funding.

School board Vice Chairwoman Natalie Beyer said the board is carefully considering the needs of the district and is listening to parents, teachers and others who are weighing in on the budget.

Beyer said state cuts to education are becoming more difficult to absorb.

“We’ll do what we have to do,” Beyer said. “I hope we can do that in partnership with County Commissioners. I’m willing to pay more in taxes to support our schools.”

Whatever the school board’s request, the final word on the DPS budget proposal will come from county commissioners, who hold the district’s purse strings.

School district officials have set May 15 as the date to deliver the budget proposal to the county for commissioners’ consideration.

Commissioner James Hill said earlier this week that he would support a tax increase to support schools.

“If I have to raise taxes for something, it would be for our children, for their education,” Hill said during a rally for public education at Southwest Elementary school on Monday.

DPS has asked commissioners for roughly $5 million in “new money,” of which $1.5 million is a recurring request to fund the operations of Whitted School, a 144-seat preschool that is scheduled to open in August.

DPS and the county had agreed to split the expense — $750,000 each — but because of its tight budget year, the school district asked the county, which has pledged support for early childhood education, to fund the entire amount.

The remainder of the “new money” request — $3.5 million — would go toward salary, supplement and benefit increases, enrollment growth for charter schools (DPS is projected to experience a decline in enrollment) and for fixed costs such as benefits, utilities and contracts.

The $430 million spending plan only relies on $785,000 of fund balance, which is in stark contrast to the past couple of years when DPS drew down more than $8 million from its “rainy day” account to balance the budget.

The budget calls for the elimination of 103 positions, 56 of them the school-based positions — teachers, assistant principals and clerical positions mentioned earlier — and 47 central office positions as part of a cost-cutting strategy to save more than $11 million.

DPS officials said the cuts will cause no current employees to lose their jobs. Instead, they will be moved to fill vacant positions.

Thanks to a hefty increase in capital outlay, DPS’ budget would grow 5 percent, from $409 million this school year to $430 million for next school year.

The capital outlay budget would grow from $15.7 million this year to $35 million next school year, an 8.1 percent increase under the current proposal.

DPS’ budget is primarily fueled by $203.5 million in state funding and $138.5 million in local funding.

It is rounded out by $25 million in federal money, the $35 million for capital outlay, $17 million for child nutrition and $10 million in grants.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645