Education

Durham Public Schools' dilemma: Should a district losing students expect extra money?

Teacher's aide Elizabeth Young (left) asks a question of her students during an English lesson at the Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham, N.C. on Dec. 20, 2016. A new state report praises Maureen Joy for its academic success on state exams with economically disadvantaged students.
Teacher's aide Elizabeth Young (left) asks a question of her students during an English lesson at the Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham, N.C. on Dec. 20, 2016. A new state report praises Maureen Joy for its academic success on state exams with economically disadvantaged students. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Durham County Commissioner Heidi Carter was surprised last month when the county manager recommended the school district only get $3 million in "new money" for the coming school year.

DPS had asked for a $5 million increase in a budget request that Carter, the school board's former chairwoman called "very conservative and not extravagant in any area."

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But it isn't the amount of the request that's driving County Manager Wendell Davis' recommendation.

It's DPS' enrollment numbers.

Over the past three years, the school system has lost students, while enrollment of area charter schools has grown.

In a letter to the county commissioners, Davis said he can't justify recommending that DPS receive the $5 million in "new money" that Superintendent Pascal Mubenga wants when "the number of students in Durham Public Schools has decreased the last two years."

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Heidi Carter Durham Public Schools

One parent's view

DPS' expects to enroll 231 fewer students next school year while charter schools gain 300 as more parents like Kim Wright choose charters over traditional public schools.

Wright, the parent of a rising senior at Voyager Academy and another child who graduated in 2017, said Voyager, the largest of Durham's 13 charter schools, was a better fit for her family primarily because its smaller classes would give her children more individual attention.

"We're happy about the decision we made, but we also know parents who are satisfied with their decision to stay in traditional public schools," Wright said.

With a waiting list of nearly 2,100 children, Voyager, located on a sprawling campus in northern Durham, illustrates DPS' dilemma.

The much sought-after school, which enrolls about 1,350 students in grades K-12, all selected by lottery, will only admit 222 new students next school year. But if Voyager decides to expand at some point, which it can do under state law, it's likelyDPS' enrollment would take an even bigger hit.

Money follows students

When families enroll their children in charter schools, educational dollars follow them.

The costs to operate the school buildings they leave behind, however, remain with the district.

"We still have our buildings to maintain and the electricity costs aren't going with those students, they stay with us," Mubenga said.

Last year, DPS handed over $22.8 million to the county's 13 charters and the dozens of other charters in nearby counties attended by Durham students. The pass-through amount will grow by $1 million next school year to pay for charter school enrollment growth.

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Durham County Manager Wendell Davis

And If Davis' recommended $3 million in "new money" stands, then area charter schools will receive roughly half — $1.5 million — leaving DPS with the other $1.5 million pay for $4 million worth of needs it has identified. State law requires school districts to give charters the percentage of new local dollars equivalent to the percentage of students in the county attending charter schools.

"The county manager's proposal would have us [DPS] barely benefiting and the new money would largely be distributed to charter schools," said school board member Natalie Beyer.

A look at enrollment

After a record-setting 33,750 students during the 2014-15 school year, DPS enrollment fell to 33,181 this school year, or 569 fewer students. If the projected loss of 231 students for next school year is accurate, DPS' enrollment will have dipped 800 students (2.4 percent) since the 2014-15 school year.

During that same span, the number of Durham children enrolled in charters in Durham and neighboring counties has increased by 559 students (9.4 percent), from 5,947 to 6,506 this school year. Charter schools are expected to get another 300 students next school year.

And DPS' enrollment numbers would have likely suffered even more if Discovery Charter, a planned Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (S.T.E.A.M) charter middle school for more than 500 students planned for northern Durham wasn't hamstrung by legal troubles brought on by neighbors who sued the county to stop the school from being built.

The school could open in time for the 2019-20 school year, depending on whether neighbors decide to appeal a recent decision by the county Board of Adjustment that paved the way for construction to start.

Recommendation has consequences

The $4 million increase that DPS says it needs would go toward salary and benefit increases, anticipated higher utility and contract costs, five School Resource Officers to replace those formally provided by the city, programs and strategies to enhance teacher working conditions and moving the district's custodial services in-house.

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Mubenga has said spending cuts will have to be made if the county doesn't fully fund the district's "new money" request.

"Two things will happen if the county manager’s [Davis] budget is passed as written," Mubenga said. "First, in order to fulfill the board’s priorities, additional cuts to DPS would have to be made. Second, due to charter school enrollment growth, approximately half of the County Manager’s new money for public education would go to charter schools rather than DPS."

But Davis says he cannot ignore the district's enrollment numbers.

"I have to look at the facts," Davis said.

Those facts also include DPS' healthy $9.2 million fund balance or rainy day account, which Davis hinted the school district could use to make up the difference between its request and his recommendation.

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Mike Lee

Whether DPS receives the $5 million increase it requested will ultimately be decided by the county commissioners later this month.

School board Chairman Mike Lee hopes a majority of commissioners will see DPS' request as Carter does.

"This is a very conservative request, just to sustain our district over the next year," Lee said. "We're not asking for anything outrageous. I'm hoping commissioners and the county manager will reconsider the request."

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645
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