Durham News: Opinion

Bert L’Homme: Budget decisions will protect Durham Public Schools’ bottom line: students

When I left North Carolina in 2009, our state was spending $8.7 billion a year to serve 1.47 million children in our public schools. Then the Great Recession hit, and funding was slashed dramatically. Returning to lead DPS in July, I came home to a state serving almost 44,000 more children with funding that had barely recovered to the level I had left. Per child, the education dollars our state spends have declined by 2.2 percent.

In other words, more children in every public school in North Carolina are being served with fewer resources than were available in 2009. Thanks to the generosity and commitment of Durham County citizens, we have been able to avoid many of the budget reductions that our neighbors have faced – but those years of state funding cuts have built to the point that Durham Public Schools has to make difficult decisions.

Here is an example of how state budget decisions have affected our classrooms. Thanks to the recession, teacher pay has been stagnant in North Carolina for years. Last year, the state made an overdue effort to correct that, primarily benefiting newer teachers. There is a proposal in the General Assembly to further boost beginning teacher pay next year.

However, not all of DPS’s teachers are funded by the state. A third of our overall budget comes to us from local sources, mainly Durham County Government appropriations. When the state raises teacher salaries, it does so for all teachers, not only the ones the state pays for. This means that we must spend additional local funding on teacher salaries – a completely worthwhile expenditure that comes at the cost of other services and supplies provided to our schools.

Last year, to help balance our budget, we committed $11.5 million from our savings (“fund balance”) to pay for some ongoing programs and positions. This year we have to cover that $11.5 million plus additional cost increases such as expected raises in teacher salaries. It is a $17.2 million gap, and we will only have $13.7 million in savings available to help close it – a figure that is already dangerously low in case of an emergency.

So now Durham Public Schools must be prepared to cut our own budget. We cannot assume that state funding for public education will increase for next year, nor that local funding will be available to once again make up for lost ground. In fact, a Senate proposal this month would shift millions of dollars in sales tax revenue from Durham County to other counties.

We are following the lead of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education and our Budget Advisory Committee to protect the classroom and instruction as much as possible. Sixty-one percent of our proposed budget reductions, $5.15 million, come from Central Services departments such as Administration, Operations and Academics. These cuts will have an indirect but real impact on our schools, from instructional and technical support to maintenance turnaround times.

We do not expect any current teachers or teacher assistants to lose their jobs nor have their days of employment reduced. However, about 30 vacant teaching positions across our 55 schools would be reduced, and we would reduce school clerical positions as well (transferring staff to vacancies when possible).

Durham County, as a community that demands excellence and supports a large population of students with high needs, is caught between a rock and a hard place. We are challenged to teach every child – reading proficiently by third grade, graduating on time prepared for college and career – with fewer resources. Our citizens, through their elected representatives, have repeatedly answered the call when it comes to supporting Durham Public Schools. That community investment is one of the reasons I came back to DPS.

But our children can’t wait for our state to “get the funding right.” We have to hold ourselves accountable for success despite the changes in our state. We will prioritize our spending on the programs and services that have a demonstrable impact on academic achievement. A leaner central office will focus its support for teachers and students to help them do their best work.

As superintendent, my bottom line always has to be student and school performance. Durham Public Schools must continue to improve despite the budget challenges we face.

Bert L’Homme is the superintendent of Durham Public Schools.