Durham County

School board OKs $430 million spending plan, seeks more county funding

The Durham Public Schools Board of Education approved a proposed $430 million spending plan at an Operational Services & Policy work session Thursday night for the 2017-18 school year and added an amendment requesting additional funds from the county.

Board members could have approved the budget as recommended by the district’s administration or recommended adjustments to be sent to the Durham County Commissioners for their approval and opted for the latter.

If the school board’s request for the additional funds is approved by Durham County Commissioners, $2.6 million would fund incentives aimed at boosting teacher retention such as offering higher payment for extra-curricular activities overseen, parental leave and extra classroom duty.

Furthermore, $200,000 would go to bus driver incentives, $100,000 would increase pay for substitute teachers and DPS efforts to recruit teachers would be bolstered by $500,000.

It was a bitter battle between school board members that finally resulted in the amended budget proposal.

“This is the first time that we’ve ever had this much energy or discussion over a budget,” school board member Minnie Forte-Brown said.

Spectator seating at the meeting was full and a gaggle of residents waited outside in the hallway watching a live video feed of the meeting.

“Generally, the gallery is empty and we can just come in here and just approve a budget,” Forte-Brown said. “So, this is interesting. This is 2017. We’ve never had this type of discussion before. So, I’m happy.”

The debate began after board member Steve Unruhe offered a motion that the board submit a request for an appropriation of $132.9 million to County Commissioners to support public education here. The request included $110.6 million for Durham Public Schools and $22.3 million for public charter schools, $3,148,006 to retain school level positions and $2.6 million to support teacher retention initiatives.

Forte-Brown was joined by school board Vice Chairwoman Natalie Beyer in a contentious struggle to garner enough votes to amend the proposal to include requests for funding of such items as bus driver incentives and an increase in substitute teacher pay.

“Three years ago, the board decided not to ask for what we needed because we felt some sense of ‘perhaps we’d been wrong, we didn’t do the right thing.’ So, we went to the county and said ‘we’re not going to ask you anything,’ we’re just going to suffer,” Forte-Brown said. “Well, you always know that you get what you ask for. So, when we didn’t ask three years ago, they said, ‘well evidently you don’t need it.’ So, each year, it’s been less ... and we’ve been asking for crumbs. You ask for crumbs, you get crumbs.”

Unruhe said he had a very different understanding of what the school board’s responsibility is in terms of preparing a budget proposal when compared to those of some of his peers.

“I don’t agree, that it’s ‘bold’ or ‘visionary’ to simply list everything we need. As [board member Bettina Umstead] said, we could have a much longer list than this and I would fully support that,” Unruhe said. “I will say, as I said before, we are going to have to fight very hard for — and it would be a tremendous victory if we reach — the request that we’re asking for in my motion, that would involve a substantial tax increase in Durham. I believe the citizens of Durham would support that. I don’t believe that they have yet seen what that would look like.”

Unruhe continued, “I’ll say it one more time, I resent the implication that I’m not in favor of these [appropriation funds] because I’m not just simply slapping it on top of a budget request.”

With the absence of school board Chairman Mike Lee, there were only six board members on hand to vote.

Beyer offered a motion for an amended version of Unruhe’s motion and have the board request additional funds from the county. She was only backed by Forte-Brown and voted down 4-2.

Beyer then offered an amendment requesting an additional — though, this time, smaller — appropriation, which ended in a 3-3 tie.

Debate proceeded until Umstead — who originally voted against Beyer’s motions — moved that the board reconsider Beyer’s second motion. The motion advanced and Beyer’s second motion was brought back and passed 4-2 with member Xavier Cason and Umstead joining Forte-Brown and Beyer on the winning side.

Finally, the board voted 4-2 to send Unruhe’s motion with Beyer’s amendment to County Commissioners.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks