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L'Homme, DPS on budget scrutiny: past budgets should be assessed in context; "fresh look" at spending to come

Ed. note: Durham Public Schools superintendent Bert L'Homme has provided the following response to BCR's recent "Scrutinizing our Schools" series. It is printed below in full and unedited. An accompanying document and spreadsheet from DPS are linked at the story's end. --KSD.

Bull City Rising has performed a public service in delving into and asking questions about our spending priorities in Durham Public Schools. In the last few years DPS has been able to produce much more transparent and understandable budget information. That helps hold us accountable as a district not only for our finances but our impact on student achievement—and we welcome that accountability.

There are some areas in the reporting that miss important context, however. We want to highlight one particular example and also talk about one of the assumptions in the series: that DPS’s spending priorities have changed significantly in the last decade.

 

TEACHERS

The basic facts in Scrutinizing our Schools: A Decade Later Spending and Enrollment Up, But Fewer Teachers are accurate but miss an important point: when other districts have had to reduce the teaching workforce in the face of state funding cuts, during the last ten years DPS has been able to mostly hold the line on maintaining teaching positions.

Comparing the state’s “Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget” documents from FY 2007-08 to FY 2014-15, we see that the state funded 85,575 teachers just prior to the Great Recession. Today, the state only funds 81,702 teachers—3,873 fewer, despite the fact that our public schools served 25,271 additional students. (None of these figures includes charter schools.)

Most school districts couldn’t make up the difference, but DPS came close. From FY 2007-08 to FY 2014-15, the number of federally and locally funded teachers in North Carolina increased, but not enough to offset the cuts in teaching positions. As a result, there were 3,110 fewer teachers in North Carolina school districts, a decline of 3.18 percent statewide. Durham Public Schools, on the other hand, was able to keep our number of teachers relatively level. In FY 2007-08 we had 2,368 teachers (coincidentally the same number we had in 2006, as BCR stated). In FY 2014-15, the 2,347 teachers serving our students represented only a 0.9 percent decline.

 

SPENDING PRIORITIES OVER TIME

It’s hard to make a detailed, apples-to-apples comparison of what DPS spent its funding on as far back as BCR’s reporting goes, because the state’s current Chart of Accounts only goes back to FY 2007-08. However, in comparing our last full budget in FY 2014-15 to that year, our district finance team found that DPS spent its resources in the same general areas from then to now. There were no dramatic changes in spending priorities by category between those years. For the most part, DPS has the same structure and budget priorities that it had in FY 2007-08.

DPS’s budget grew from $336.4 million in FY 2007-08 to $387.0 million in FY 2014-15, an increase of $50.7 million. Almost a third of that increase, however, was either outside DPS’s control ($8.8 million to charter schools; $2.2 million to utility bills) or through the federally-funded child nutrition program ($5.1 million).

Outside those areas, the largest increase in spending overwhelmingly was in regular curricular services: $12.3 million primarily on salaries for teachers ($3.5 million more), master teachers, instructional facilitators and specialists, and compensation supplements. The largest increase in regular curricular spending was in benefits for these employees: hospitalization insurance rose by $1.4 million and retirement by a whopping $6.9 million.

Other areas of spending that rose by $2 million or more between those years included the Academically Intellectually Gifted program (mainly teachers), Limited English Proficiency (mainly teachers), remedial and supplemental services (mainly contracted services and instructional facilitators), school leadership (mainly benefits to existing staff; spending on assistant principals slightly declined), and technology (mainly contracted services).

In the greater context of a $387 million budget, these are not disproportionate changes over time. Those increases do deserve scrutiny, though, especially because there is a sizable hole in our budget we need to fill.

 

WHAT COMES NEXT

If there are no increases in local funding, Durham Public Schools may have to cut approximately $15 million dollars simply to balance next year’s budget. We made a number of spending reductions last year, primarily in vacant positions, but still spent heavily from our fund balance to offset teacher assistant position reductions from the state, boost teacher supplements and classified staff salaries, and meet other recurring costs. Of course, once you spend from your savings account in one year, you can’t spend it the next year without replenishing it.

This potential $15 million cut is before even considering the DPS Board of Education’s expansion priorities, including increasing local compensation for DPS teachers and staff and teacher recruitment incentives. It takes into account a potential state salary increase for teachers and staff, which we would have to match for locally funded positions and teacher supplements.

Thanks to improved financial reporting over the last two years, we are able to take a fresh look at whether our current investments, reflecting long-time priorities, provide an adequate return in improving our students’ academic performance. But the context in which past funding decisions were made, especially state cuts to public education, is important.

We have to redirect our resources to more effective areas, but first we have to make significant budget reductions.

The bottom line must be higher-performing students and schools—and on that point you will find no disagreement.

Bert L’Homme is superintendent of Durham Public Schools.

Additional materials:

Comments

Todd P.

One thing missing from Superintentent L'Homme's reply is an answer to why DPS spending in certain categories (Admin, transportation, etc.) is well out of line with peer districts, as pointed out in the BCR series. A comparison purely with prior DPS budgets isn't going to show long term issues with DPS spending priorities.

As far as reducing the utility costs that he described as 'out of our hands', getting rid of the dozens of 'mobile classrooms' in use across the district would go a long way toward taking care of that. So would fixing HVAC systems. At Brogden, one side of the hall is hot and one side is cold year round, with the only apparent solution being to open the windows. That is ridiculously wasteful.

Jon

I appreciate Superintendent L'Home's further clarification where funds are allocated. I had forgotten about the financial burden of pensions. However, something still does not add up in his response. DPS has maintained the same number of teachers since 2007-08 while our peer districts have seen reductions. That suggests the DPS student:teacher ratio is lower (or the same at worst) as our peer districts. If true, how can DPS still have some of the lowest performing students in NC? It's not the quantity of the teachers but the quality of their instruction that will improve DPS student performance. Quality instruction means well trained teachers with the resources and time to educate the children.

Jon

@Todd. Anecdotal reason I observed this morning that may help explain high transportation costs. I had to give a colleague that lives in a large apartment complex a ride to work. There were TWO school buses in the complex parking lot picking up older (junior high?) kids at each building! The kids can't walk to the main entrance for pickup at a single location?

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