School budget request to rise $7.5 million

Staff WriterMarch 30, 2007 

— School administrators will ask the school board and county commissioners next month for about $7.5 million more than they got last year.

The money would be necessary for Durham Public Schools to just stay afloat, Superintendent Carl Harris said at a meeting of the school board late Thursday.

"We all know that overcrowded schools don't provide the greatest quality of instruction," Harris said. "There are only so many mobile units we can add to a site. The hallways are not expanding."

In Harris' proposed budget for the 2007-08 school year -- which details $376 million in total operating costs -- about 28 percent is money allocated by the county commissioners.

Most of the money from the county goes to operational costs, followed by salaries. The increase is necessary because of inflation, projected student growth and increases in teacher salaries, said Hank Hurd, associate superintendent of administrative services.

"We need that amount of money just to operate in the same manner that we are now," Hurd told the school board.

Some of the increase is spurred by student growth. Overall, almost 1,200 new students are expected to enroll in Durham schools for the fall.

But nearly 800 of those student will attend charter schools, which operate independently of Durham Public Schools. About $2 million of the $7.5 million being sought will be funneled through the school system to charter schools, Hurd said. This represents less than 2 percent of the money coming from the county.

The school system would have to spend that $2 million anyway, regardless of which schools the students chose to attend.

But, Hurd said, even though the Durham Public Schools won't have to provide teachers for those 800 projected students, there are fixed costs that are not reduced even with the absence of those students from traditional public schools.

"We still have the same number of buses," he said. "We still have to heat and cool the same number of buildings."

Supporters of charters in the past have contested Hurd's analysis and don't believe charters are having a disproportionate impact on Durham in comparison to other counties.

Also adding to the overall budget will be the start of four new schools. The project that will cost the most will likely be the new W.G. Pearson magnet middle school. It will be housed in the former Pearson Elementary School on Umstead Street, but the building will require improvements.

The district is budgeting 6.5 percent raises for roughly 2,300 teachers, another big-ticket item.

Asking the county commissioners for $7.5 million more -- about 6 percent more than the schools requested last year -- had citizens and some school board members concerned about cuts. Board member Steve Schewel said he was worried about whether county leaders would be convinced the increase is needed.

"We're just going to have to be extremely well-prepared to show them in a lot of detail that we're not adding anything here," Schewel said. "We're just keeping the doors open at the same level of service."

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. April 5 in the school board meeting room.

Staff writer Samiha Khanna can be reached at 956-2468 or samiha.khanna@newsobserver.com.

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