Durham Public Schools to seek $1.5 million from county to operate Whitted School

Superintendent Bert L'Homme in a recent Durham Public Schools file photo.
Superintendent Bert L'Homme in a recent Durham Public Schools file photo.

Superintendent Bert L’Homme has requested and received permission to formally ask County Commissioners for $1.5 million in recurring money to pay operational costs at Whitted School.

L’Homme received unanimous approval from the Durham Board of Education to ask for the extra funding during a school board business meeting Thursday.

The money will primarily pay for staff, teachers and other expenses at the new preschool, which is scheduled to to open in August.

L’Homme cited a tough budget year coupled with an unfunded state mandate to reduce K-3 class size as the main reasons the Durham Public Schools can’t honor a previous agreement to split the preschool program’s operating costs with the county.

“As I shared in my previous letter to you and the Durham County Board of Commissioners, Durham Public Schools faces a historic budgetary challenge,” L’Homme wrote in a letter dated March 24 to County Manager Wendell Davis.

The K-3 class size mandate would cost DPS $6 million and force the school district to lay off 100 art, music and P.E. teachers.

DPS has been asked to adopt a $15 per hour minimum “living” wage at a cost of $2.3 million to match the minimum wage adopted by the county and City of Durham.

“Even if the state Senate agrees to rescind its changes in K-3 teacher appropriation and if DPS postpones adopting the city’s and county’s Living Wage standards -- and even if the county adopts our baseline new money request of $4.98 million -- DPS would still have to cut $10 million or more from our budget to balance it in FY 2017-18,” L’Homme said.

DPS is supposed to pay $750,000 of the $1.5 million in operating costs for Whitted, a sum which would be matched by the county.

County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said recently that she and her colleagues would consider the request – discussed between the two bodies at a joint meeting March 21 – during upcoming county budget deliberations.

But L’Homme said during the school board’s business meeting that there is urgency to the request because DPS must soon begin to hire administrators and teachers to staff the eight preschool classrooms that will serve 144 children in a $22 million joint DPS and county multigenerational venture that will also include more than 70 apartment units for senior citizens.

The preschool is scheduled to open in August to expand the number of seats the district has for early childhood education.

Preschools are seen by DPS officials and other supporters of the program as critical to efforts to improve academic achievement throughout Durham county.

DPS also asked the county to make a special “appropriation by purpose” of the $1.5 million so that Durham’s publicly-funded charter schools wouldn’t be eligible for a share of the money.

L’Homme said he checked with the school board attorney who confirmed that if the $1.5 million for Whitted was made in a separate appropriation to DPS’ Fund 8, a fund which state law allows local school districts to establish to account for any “funds received for prekindergarten programs” or other special programs and appropriated fund balances, it would exclude charter schools from receiving a share.

If the money is routed through the district’s local current expense fund, then the charter schools would be due a share.

Under state law, charter schools are due a percentage of new local money that’s equal to its percentage share of a county’s public school students.

For Durham’s 13 charter schools, that amount is 18 percent, which means charter schools would be due $270,000.

“This is important for two different reasons,” L’Homme said last week. “No. 1, we need the money now. No. 2, it’s a way of making sure that the entire $1.5 million is going to Whitted School.”

L’Homme took care to explain that the request would be a “continuing appropriation.”

“This is not a one-year request,” L’Homme said. “Hopefully, they’ll [commissioners] vote on it now and this $1.5 million will be there every year for Whitted School.”

School board member Steve Unruhe said there should be separate county budget lines for preschools and for charter schools.

“It makes for a much cleaner budget,” Unruhe said. “We should have a budget that’s a budget for Durham Public Schools. Pre-K is an important, but separate activity that we’re asking the county to support and it should be a separate part of their budget and charter schools should be a separate part of their budget. The last time I checked, they’re not in our jurisdiction.”

Although DPS provides dozens of preschool classes, it’s under no legal obligation to do so.

The school board supports universal preschool and provides prekindergarten classes throughout the district as a way to improve academic achivement in the public schools.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645