The Durham school board has asked the county commissioners for $2.75 million to help cover an expected $15 million budget shortfall.
The board has already proposed $12.25 million in cuts, mostly affecting central office positions. More than 91 people will be reassigned to vacant positions or fired. Those conversations started Thursday and will continue throughout this week.
Superintendent Bert L’Homme said if central office employees are certified, “every one of them will be offered a job in a classroom.” He also is working to hire an employment agency to help those losing their jobs.
In the past, Durham Public Schools has relied on its “robust” fund balance to meet shortfalls, he said. But that balance is expected to fall to about $6 million toward the end of the school year, and he said it can’t be allowed to go much lower.
The board must find other ways to cover not only the fund balance gap, but also pay for salary increases, more charter school students and fixed costs.
The central office reductions are expected to save $9.3 million. Lapsed salaries and hiring freezes will save another $2.95 million.
These cuts come amid criticism that Durham’s spending is too high compared to peer districts and that too much of it goes to central services. Last year’s budget topped $415 million.
But at a joint meeting with county commissioners Monday school board member Leigh Bordley emphasized that, even if they don’t work in the classroom, these central office staff members offer critical support for teachers.
“I just want to make sure that, just because these aren’t teaching positions, people understand that these cuts will affect our students,” she said.
I think the board is very much still struggling with this proposal because we believe fundamentally the state allotments are inadequate.
School board member Natalie Beyer
Commissioner Wendy Jacobs specifically asked about the 54 Academic Services positions being cut. “That directly impacts the classroom,” she said.
The proposed reductions also include 50 teaching assistants. L’Homme said none of them will lose their jobs, but they may have to change schools.
The budget would trade those teaching assistants for 30 elementary school teachers. L’Homme explained that Durham has overallotted teachers to middle and high schools, allowing its number of elementary school teachers to fall below the state recommendation. This measure would correct that trend.
“These are difficult decisions both at the central service level and the classroom level, and I think the board is very much still struggling with this proposal because we believe fundamentally the state allotments are inadequate,” board member Natalie Beyer said.
Bordley also expressed concern about state-level cuts.
“We have shielded the classroom as best we could, but they have an impact,” she said. “Yes, people will lose their jobs. There will be fewer adults with our children as a result of the cuts. They are real. We have less money.”
State funding will not be determined until after the board submits its budget request to the county, so the board must estimate the state’s contribution. “It’s a lot of guesstimation going on based on our best information that we have,” school board chair Heidi Carter said. If the district receives less state funding than expected, the budget has to be amended.
“This is an ongoing challenge that’s intensified in recent years because the state has delayed and delayed and delayed into the fall,” Carter said.
L’Homme said his staff has been expecting reductions. A hiring freeze has been in place since the start of the year, forcing the office to begin consolidating positions already.
To the people returning next year, he said, “I am asking you to come back and do more than you’ve ever done before. Because the work is not going away. Our students are coming to school more needy than ever before.”
The board plans to vote on the school budget request April 28 and submit it to the county commissioners on April 29.
The school board plans to vote on the school budget request April 28 and submit it to the county commissioners on April 29.