Climax, meet anti.
It seems like it was just yesterday that County Manager Mike Ruffin proposed a $3.1 million intrayear reduction in funding for Durham Public Schools this year -- a reduction that led the school board, key DPS administrators, and parents to turn out in force with bright blue signs opposing the cuts.
And, well, it almost was yesterday -- two weeks in fact; January 11, to be precise -- that the tumultuous Board of County Commissioners meeting saw this heated debate, with the schools insisting that a $3.1 million cut from local funding to the district's $369 million budget would impact a wide range of services, with the district likely forced to take dramatic action to avoid impact on direct classroom instruction.
After a long debate, the BOCC sent Ruffin and DPS superintendent to the table to hammer out a middle ground between the $3.1 million cut sought by the county manager and the $1 million that Harris was proposing.
And the two leaders have in fact worked out a compromise position after personal negotiations.
The compromise amount?
If you're scratching your head over this one -- you're probably not alone. Turns out that there was an extra $2.7 million in lottery revenue coming to DPS that was, in the Herald-Sun's terms, "unallocated" (emphasis added)--
The deal means that no jobs will be lost and no salaries or programs will be cut as a result of county givebacks because the cuts don't affect the schools' operating budget -- a major concern when reductions were discussed earlier this month.
"I'm glad that the county and the schools were able to come to that kind of agreement that maximizes that potential for the district," school board chairwoman Minnie Forte-Brown said. "So that's great for us. I'm pleased with that."
The capital cut will result in delays in renovations, Forte-Brown acknowledged. She did not know which projects will be postponed.
So let's get this straight. This whole time, when the question of school funding was hitting the front page of the paper, there was $2.7 million sitting out there without any definitive purpose.
Were those funds known to DPS, but the district didn't want to put them on the table? Were the funds extant within DPS but the district didn't know? Was DPS not aware that this $2.7 million in funding was on the way?
It's hard to think of a scenario other than these three. It's also really hard to be satisfied with any of these three.
Especially in light of the gloom-and-doom scenario painted in the BOCC debate:
"There are many who believe that any support beyond the classroom is not as critical and therefore much easier to eliminate," Harris said. "I ask each of you to think about the support that students get, and it's because of that support they are provided by non-teaching staff that support them being successful inside the classroom."
Superintendent Harris notes his concern about making cuts with only five months left in the school year, particularly after investing in programs like small high school programs at Southern and Hillside and the forthcoming Montessori middle school planned at the Lakewood YMCA.
"Because of our collective effort, more of our students are continuing in school rather than dropping out," Harris said.
"During the time that I have served as superintendent of Durham Public Schools, fiscal accountability has a been a priority for me," Harris said. "I believe you realize how serious we are about the work that we do, and how much we realize resources are essential" to our success.
It's possible that there's more information out there to explain why this $2.7 million wasn't previously on the table, or to explain that the answers to this question go beyond the three scenarios painted above. But the three logical scenarios seem to be a dark cloud on the notion of fiscal accountability.
The troubling thing to this observer from the little information we have on this $2.7 million in "unallocated lottery revenue" is that it comes in the wake of one subject never put on the table during the $3.1 million cut discussions: the fact that Durham is the most generous locality in the state when it comes to local school funding.
Not that that's a bad thing, mind you. Durham's schools have performed well compared to its neighbors when the demographic constitution of the system is examined; it's hard to compare the bottom-line performance of individual schools in the wealthier Chapel Hill-Carrboro system or the larger, somewhay higher-SES Wake County system -- a system that also dilutes free and reduced lunch rates at individual schools, helping the poorest students succeed or at least masking their individual impact on No Child Left Behind stats.
That success has come from a community willing, after a long civil rights struggle and post-integration resegregation into city and county schools, to merge these separate and unequal school systems; willing to fund bonds for school construction and repair almost without fail.
And willing to fund schools not just adequately, but well. Durham's local contribution to schools (which also receive federal and state funding) are the fifth-highest in the state, behind only Asheville City, Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Dare Co., and Orange Co.
Compared with the other nine districts that together with Durham make up the state's ten largest school systems, this local funding contributes to Durham having some of the best operational funding among its peers, on a per-pupil basis.
(All data from the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction's "Statistical Profile 2007"--
Of course, some of this higher operational expenditure is due to the fact that slower-growth Durham Co. has the luxury of spending less on capital expenditures per-pupil than places like Charlotte and Raleigh, where faster population growth has meant more new schools sooner than in Durham.
(Charlotte-Mecklenburg ($1,308 per-pupil) and Wake ($1,574) and their suburbs in Union Co. ($1,793) and Johnston Co. ($1,402) spent more on capital expenditures than Durham ($522) in a five-year average as of 2005-06. Only Gaston Co. and Cumberland Co. spent less in the latest report.)
And less we think the higher operational spending is due to Durham having a disproportionate special needs population -- something a person attending the BOCC meeting on the 11th suggested to me -- the DPI's data suggests 13.3% of Durham's school population is so classified, below the 13.9% average in the ten largest N.C. school districts, and less than Wake's 15.1%.
Altogether, the data suggest a county that's been willing to fund education, consistently and repeatedly.
Which is a sign, to this observer, of foresight and of a recognition of the importance of public education.
Yet it's a willingness that takes a ding when a school system says it's painful to find $3.1 million in a $369 million budget, only to seem to say two weeks later, "Hey, don't worry, we had a couple mil bouncing around from the lottery that we didn't tell everyone about a couple of weeks back."
With luck Kay Williams or another representative from DPS can provide more clarity on just how and why these extra funds turned out -- because in the absence of more data, it's difficult to imagine this little episode not creating some reluctance on residents' part when the next bond issue or the next local tax increase earmarked for education.