At January’s full meeting of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education, I struck a more somber tone in my opening remarks than I prefer.
But this is a serious time for DPS, as the difficult choices that presented us beginning with last year’s budget have only become more serious.
At the same time, it is an opportunity to evaluate and redirect our district’s work in order to give every child the high-quality education he or she deserves.
I continue to believe that Durham Public Schools provides the best choice for Durham parents, and that a strong public school system is the heart of a strong community. Our schools must both benefit from and fuel Durham’s resurgence. Identifying priorities, mobilizing resources, and careful planning are essential to making that happen.
In the last several years, our district has generally sought to expand services to our students and provide more centralized guidance and support to our teachers in order to move the needle farther on student achievement. Local funding supplanted declining state funding. The financial constraints DPS faces require us to consider new approaches.
Last month our school board expressed their intent to increase local compensation for teachers and staff. Before we can act on those priorities, however, we will have to identify at least $9 million simply to balance the budget.
Last year’s budget was balanced using some of our undesignated fund balance, or reserves. Those reserves are now lower, and we will have find other ways to maintain ongoing funding for teacher supplements, salaries for classified staff, extra duty compensation, and the always-rising cost of benefits and utilities. In fact, if the legislature acts to raise state teacher and staff salaries, matching that raise for locally paid employees and teacher supplements could obligate us to find an additional $3 million.
This is a challenge that can only be met with a clear, fresh look at what we are spending and what impact those choices are making in the classroom. Powerful teachers and strong principal leadership are the keys. What are we doing effectively at the district level to support them? What resources are we expending that would be better served in the classroom?
This is a difficult but significant opportunity for our district. At the end of this year’s budget process, we must be on a sustainable path to higher and faster academic advancement for all our students.
During the winter break, a community leader shared with one of our board members the story of the Jennings School District in Missouri. Although much smaller than our district, they were able to make significant improvements in a high-poverty community thanks to a clear focus on achievement and strong partnerships with social services organizations.
Durham is unique, but with all of the resources our community has to offer along with its commitment to social justice, we have every reason to believe that we can make a real difference. We can continue and accelerate Durham Public Schools’ pace of improvement.
It is my commitment to Durham that our schools and school district shall rise to this occasion.
Bert L’Homme is the superintendent of Durham Public Schools.