Durham News: Opinion

Smaller classes, higher teacher pay, challenge Durham Public Schools – Bert L’Homme

Bert L’Homme
Bert L’Homme

Developing a balanced budget that prioritizes the classroom and our students has been a challenge every year since I returned to Durham Public Schools as superintendent. This year’s budget season is no different. Once more, we face difficult choices and must make clear priorities.

We face a seemingly unprecedented number of unknowns about next year’s state funding for schools. The General Assembly currently requires us to change our staffing formulas for elementary schools to reduce class sizes from kindergarten through third grade.

Fewer students per classroom in these grades would be unambiguously positive for teachers and children, if the state were willing to pay for them. Instead, the formula changes the legislature is requiring would leave our elementary schools without the funding to pay for the specialty teachers – art, music, physical education, and so on – who enrich our students’ lives.

The state House of Representatives has already overwhelmingly backed a bipartisan measure that would protect many, but not all of those specialty teaching positions. However, we do not know if the state Senate will accept their colleagues’ wisdom. If not, we will have to find significant local funding or other local budget cuts to preserve those teaching positions.

This is not our only challenge this year.

Although we deeply cut our budget last year, including a number of Central Services positions, we still maintained some programs and positions through the savings in our unassigned fund balance. Continually relying on fund balance has eaten up those savings over the last few years despite our efforts to reduce overall spending. Combined with increasing expenses for next year, we do not have enough of a fund balance to maintain existing spending.

Among those increasing expenses are salary increases that Gov. Cooper is likely to advance in his budget proposal. Our teachers and staff deserve better compensation for their hard work, and Durham Public Schools needs to offer better salaries to retain high-quality employees in a competitive job market. However, not all of our teachers and staff are paid by the state. We will have to dig deep into our pockets to fund these salary increases for locally paid employees.

Finally, the impact of charter schools in Durham County cannot be overstated.

Charter school expansion is leading to what we expect will be the second straight year of declining enrollment for Durham Public Schools. As student enrollment trends downward, DPS receives less money from the state. As charter school enrollment grows, DPS transfers more money to charters. That funding doesn’t simply follow a student – it also affects the funding for district programs and initiatives intended to support all of our students and schools.

To put it mildly, all of this makes for a complicated budget season. We are working diligently to identify the best way to balance the budget with the least disruption to students, teachers and schools. We plan to present the broad strokes of our budget proposal to our school board and community at their work session at 4:30 p.m., March 9, at the Fuller Building on 511 Cleveland St.

We again have to find a way to have a greater academic impact on our students, and better support for our teachers and staff, with fewer dollars. We are still seeking the best way to accomplish that. I would appreciate your suggestions. Please email me at bert.lhomme@dpsnc.net. Let me know your thoughts about how we can face this reality while continuing to strengthen Durham Public Schools.

What’s next

Durham Public Schools leaders will begin discussing next year’s school budget at the school board’s work session at 4:30 p.m., Thursday, March 9, at the Fuller Building on 511 Cleveland St.