Durham County

Durham Public Schools face space squeeze as cash and teachers pour in

Students and parents will see more teachers in schools this year, but some teachers could be forced to share classrooms, thanks to a budgetary windfall from the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

Aided by the county windfall, a little more than $6 million in “new money,” the Durham Public Schools will hire 43 more teachers than the 33 it planned for during budget deliberations to accommodate a new state mandate to reduce class size in kindergarten through third grade.

So, in all, the school district will hire an additional 76 teachers, the majority of whom — 56.5 — will be hired for positions in DPS elementary schools.

The district’s high schools will get 13 additional positions and middle schools will get 6.5. (The fractional positions are part-time.)

While the extra teachers are welcome, DPS Superintendent Bert L’Homme warned that they won’t come without some hardship, particularly around finding classroom space to accommodate the additional staff.

“This is great news, but this silver lining is attached to a dark cloud, in that our schools are going to have to be very creative in finding the classroom space to accommodate these teachers,” L’Homme said during a school board work session Thursday, Aug. 10. “We knew that this would be a challenge based on the state’s requirements in kindergarten through third grade.”

In response to a question from DPS Board of Education member Natalie Beyer about what kinds of creative solutions might be used to solve classroom shortages, L’Homme said teachers might have to take larger classrooms and subdivide them.

“You could have two certified teachers in the same classroom and it looks like there are a lot of kids in those classrooms but it’s actually a much smaller certified teacher ratio to student,” L’Homme said. “Teachers are good at this, with partitions and filing cabinets and taking classrooms that are bigger and subdividing them.”

The extra 56 teaching positions in elementary schools are expected to help DPS ready itself for next year’s state mandate to reduce class size in grades K-3.

“This puts us in good position to respond to next year’s class size requirements,” L’Homme said.

The state mandate, House Bill 13, was to become law this year, but the General Assembly pushed back the extensive class-size reductions in kindergarten through third-grade for one year.

The new rules will lower maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grade from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students.

In preparation for the mandate, DPS supporters went to commissioners to lobby for extra money above the school board’s initial request.

School board Vice Chairman Steve Unruhe took note of the role DPS supporters played in helping the school district secure additional funding from commissioners.

“I want to thank all of the teachers, parents and folks who fought for this budget,” Unruhe said. “The funds came because people went down and fought for it and I want to thank the county for providing the funds to do this.”

Unruhe also asked the administration to explain the restraints which prevented them from making the announcement about the extra teachers sooner to give principals more time to hire extra teachers.

“I think I know the answer, but people are going to ask,” Unruhe said. “So, why now, why didn’t we tell schools this six weeks ago. Could you walk through the budgetary restrictions that kind of forced us to wait to make this decision?”

Aaron Beaulieu, interim deputy superintendent of DPS operational services, said the district had to first assess the impact of the DPS’ state funding allotment on the DPS budget.

“Needing to get these teachers out two weeks ago, it’s still better today than it would be two weeks from today,” Beaulieu said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645