I can’t remember where I heard this saying, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot as we have been making our preparations for a difficult 2016-17 budget: “Deciding between a good and a bad option is easy. Having to choose between the good and the good is much harder.”
That’s the position that our senior administrators are in as we are poring over our budget, and it’s a position our school board will be in when we present our budget proposal.
We have powerful programs and staff that are focused on student achievement – as well as calls from our board and community for expansions of services and new academic programs – while at the same time we do not have enough funding simply to balance our budget. We are going to have to choose between the good and the good.
Our estimate of what we are going to have to cut or find new money for to balance next year’s budget has increased since our last column in The Durham News to $15 million. About $2 million of that cost increase will be due to rising student enrollment in Durham Public Schools and charter schools, and another $750,000 due to inflation – the cost of benefits, utilities and so on. My recommendation to the school board will be that we ask county commissioners to fund this growth.
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This leaves $12.25 million that we will need to make up to balance the budget, and that will mean deep cuts to our central office – programs and positions. We are going to propose mitigating that damage through a spending freeze and the use of funding for open positions we have been unable to fill. That saves us $4.5 million for 2016-17, but we will have to come back and identify more cuts to offset that the following year. This leaves us with $7.75 in cuts that will be made to our central office in a number of departments.
At the school level, we are recommending a change in how we use local funding for instruction. As the state cut teaching assistant positions, Durham Public Schools has spent local money to restore them. At the same time, in the last several years we have been over-allocating teaching positions to our middle and high schools at the expense of some of our elementary schools that now have a higher student-teacher ratio than the state allotment. That’s not acceptable, and we need to change it.
By converting 50 locally paid teacher assistant positions to 30 elementary classroom teachers, we can go a long way toward correcting that imbalance without taking teachers out of our middle and high schools. None of our current teacher assistants would lose their jobs; the positions would be eliminated through attrition.
That is the most vivid example of choosing between the good and the good. But Durham is a progressive community that deeply values education, so fair questions might include, “Is this a false choice? Shouldn’t we ask for what we need? What else can we do instead?” And that’s why our public school district is led by representative school board members who will ask hard questions and determine the final budget request to the county commissioners.
As administrators, however, we have to balance our dreams for Durham Public Schools with a careful look at what we can expect from state, local and federal funding sources. If we are to put DPS in a position to increase access to pre-kindergarten education, further increase teacher and staff salaries, and especially accelerate student achievement at every grade level – we are going to have to become more willing to prioritize.
As we finalize our budget proposal to the school board, and as the board takes public input and deliberates, I hope that you will become part of the conversation: share your own dreams for Durham Public Schools, recognize the good will of people whose priorities may differ, and help us make DPS better for every child.
Bert L’Homme is the superintendent of Durham Public Schools. His column appears on the first Sunday of each month.