'Conservative' Durham schools budget seeks money for custodians, charter-school students

Here's where the money comes from for Durham Public Schools.
Here's where the money comes from for Durham Public Schools. Durham Public Schools

Pascal Mubenga's first budget as superintendent has few new initiatives but states that a lack of new programs doesn't mean next year will be "business as usual" for the school district.

Most of the big ideas and new programs, Mubenga said, won't come until the following year. By then, Durham Public Schools will have adopted a new, five-year strategic plan to better align the budget to specific goals.

In the meantime, DPS will rely on its fund balance, essentially the school district's savings account, to pay for some of the initiatives and programs in the plan, which he hopes the school board will approve in July.

DPS officials estimate the district's fund balance will be around $9.4 million heading into the 2018-19 school year.

"We're looking pretty good with fund balance," Mubenga told the school board Thursday night. "At some point, after our strategic plan is approved, we're going to come back to you and present what we have in terms of fund balance and use some of those funds to be able to address our needs with our strategic plan."

The board will hold a public hearing on Mubenga's $432.9 million continuation budget Thursday, May 3 at the Fuller Administration Building, 211 Cleveland St. to give residents a chance to comment on the budget.

Mubenga's plan represents a 1.2 percent increase over the $427.7 million budget under which the district currently operates.

It calls for $5 million in new local funding from Durham County, which holds the district's purse strings. If granted, the $5 million would push the total county appropriation to $137.1 million, including $22.8 million for charter schools. That's a 3.8 percent increase over the $131..2 allocation granted for this school year.

"I always get nervous when we do a conservative budget, and this is a conservative budget and we're doing it in uncertain time," said school board member Natalie Beyer.

Beyer said she is concerned that the budget does not increase teachers supplements, money some districts pay teachers on top of their state salaries, which leaves DPS at risk of falling even further behind the Wake and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems.

"We can't fall behind and we don't get it if we don't ask for it," Beyer said.

Enrollment decrease

The largest share of the local funding request — $1.2 million — would go to move the district's custodial program in-house. The program is currently farmed out to a private contractor, but the board is ending the relationship after receiving numerous complaints about the treatment of workers.

The second largest request for new local funding — $1 million — would go to charter schools to pay for a projected enrollment increase of 300 students. That would push the number of charter school students to 6,806 compared to the current enrollment of 6,506.

Meanwhile, DPS expects an enrollment decrease of 231 students, from 33,181 to 32,950.

Much of the remainder of the new money request would be used for salary increases, higher benefit costs and teacher deferred needs such as pay for extra duties.

The district has also requested $300,000 to replace five School Resource Officers (SROs) previously provided by the city.

'Gutsy' software

DPS budget will also be fueled by a $209.6 million allocation from the state, $31.7 million in federal funding, $17.7 million in capital outlay to address maintenance and building needs and $8.7 million in grants.

Aaron Beaulieu, the district's chief operating officer, also rolled out new interactive, data visualization software that allows the user to quickly access summaries of DPS revenues, expenditures and personnel.

The software also allows the usual to take deep dives into academic achievement, attendance, suspensions student race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status and compare them to districts across the state.

"You can look at four overarching categories that basically drive decisions not only around this budget but future budgets," Beaulieu said.

School board member Matt Sears said the visualization software represents the first time the district has owned up to the data about its students.

"We're talking about us being 111th out of 115 [North Carolina school districts] for Hispanic students in terms of performance and a 73rd ranking for black students," Sears said. "This is what we need to be talking about and so what I'm looking for in the next budget cycle is dollars attached to these challenges."

Sears, a former teacher, said he has been waiting for DPS to provide similar detailed reports every since he was elected to the board four years ago.

'I hope this is the norm," Sears said. "Kudos to you for having the guts to put this out here."

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645