Durham County

Durham leaders prepared to pay higher taxes to support schools

School board members discuss budget during a work session on May 11.
School board members discuss budget during a work session on May 11.

By the time the Durham Public Schools Board of Education walked away from its Operational Services & Policy Work Session on May 11, its request for “new money” from County Commissioners for the 2017-18 school year had swelled to nearly $11 million.

DPS Superintendent Bert L’Homme had recommended a more modest “ask” from the county of approximately $3.5 million to pay for enrollment growth in charter schools, projected pay increases to match state raises for teachers and others paid with local money and for fixed costs such as projected increases in utilities.

But the school board, emboldened by the pleas of hundreds of residents, including teachers and the Durham Association of Educators, agreed to ask commissioners for what it considers “full funding” this year, which they contend is needed to give the more than 30,000 students who attend Durham Public Schools the best education possible.

“The county needs to understand that the taxpayers are asking for full funding,” school board member Minnie Forte-Brown said during the board’s May 11 work session. “This is not coming out of left field. These are people who pay taxes.”

The additional $7.45 million approved in the DPS funding request includes $3.1 million to restore 24 teaching positions, eight assistant principal positions and several school-based clerical positions.

It also includes $1.6 million to pay teachers for extra-curricular duties, parental leave and to pay teachers for extra duties such as filling in as a substitute teacher.

Another $1.7 million would go toward bus driver incentives, increasing pay for substitute teachers and teacher recruitment.

In a separate request to commissioners, L’Homme sought $1.5 million in recurring money to pay for the operation of Whitted School, a 144-seat preschool that is scheduled to open in August.

DPS and the county originally agreed to split the cost to run the preschool, but school officials said tough budget times make it difficult to honor the agreement.

Forte-Brown and others noted that the school board has received more than 285 messages from citizens supporting the additional funding attached to the DPS budget proposal.

Many of the residents who contacted school board members said they’d be willing to support a tax increase to support Durham schools, Forte-Brown said.

At least two county commissioners — James Hill and former school board chairwoman Heidi Carter — are among those who have said they are willing to increase county taxes to support public schools.

Hill expressed his support during a recent pro-education rally a few weeks ago. Carter weighed in on it this week.

“I’m willing to support a tax increase anytime we can make sure the money will work for the taxpayers of Durham,” Carter said. “I think we can make any dollars generated by a tax increase to support our schools work for the taxpayers of Durham.”

A penny added on the county tax rate currently generates $3.5 million, so it would take more than three cents to be added to the current tax rate to generate the nearly $11 million needed to fund all of the items added to DPS’ “new money” request.

An increase of one cent per $100 valuation would equate to an added tax to taxpayers of $18 per year on a home valued at $180,000, the median price for a house in Durham. A three-cent increase would be an increase of $54 per year on the same price house.

Durham County Manager Wendell Davis is scheduled to present his budget recommendations to County Commissioners, Monday, May 22 at a meeting that begins at 7 p.m.

If the past is any indication, Davis’ recommended appropriation to DPS will be considerable less than the nearly $11 million requested by the school district.

“We would hope we could have our full ‘ask’ approved,” school board Chairman Mike Lee said. “But whatever money they provide for the school district, we will accept and move forward with it.”

Lee said all of the items added to the L’Homme’s initial budget recommendation are important, but that restoring the eight assistant principals are especially critical.

And although funding for it was not included in the “new money” request, Lee said he thinks increasing the DPS minimum wage to $15 per hour to match the county and city pay scales is also important.

The real test for DPS will come when Davis shares his budget recommendations on Monday, Lee said.

“When we get an understanding of what our funding is, our priorities will become clearer,” Lee said.

Like Carter and Hill, Lee said he is willing to pay higher taxes to support Durham schools.

“I am, yes,” Lee said emphatically when asked if he would pay high taxes to support DPS. “I’m absolutely willing to pay higher taxes.”

School board member Steve Unruhe, who had pushed a proposal asking for less than the $11 million in “new money” approved but more than the amount requested in L’Homme’s recommendation, said the list of add-ons approved by the school board is reasonable.

Unruhe said that in most states, the items are standard.

But in North Carolina, Unruhe said residents are not accustomed to paying higher tax rates to support schools in that manner.

“There’s nothing on that list that’s not a reasonable thing,” Unruhe said.

Still, Unruhe doesn’t think the full ask is in the cards for DPS.

“I think the only way that it happens is if the community says to commissioners that this is what they want and that they’re willing to pay for it,” Unruhe said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645