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Members of local PTA groups and the school advocates of Durham Allies for Responsive Education (DARE) gathered last night at Hillandale Elementary to hear the bad news and the bad news about this coming year's school budget.

Yep, that's right -- the bad and the bad.

The first bad news? The end of federal stimulus dollars that Durham Public Schools have used for the past two fiscal years to plug holes in the budget driven by recessionary drops in state tax coffers. 270 DPS employees including a number of teachers are paid out of this $14 million source of funds.

But that's not all. The state of North Carolina is looking to shave north of $2.4 billion from an $18 billion budget this coming year. And while Gov. Bev Perdue has promised to spare education the brunt of cuts, with K-12 and higher education taking up more than $10 billion a year in the state budget, it's hard to figure how to close the budget gap without education cuts, given a newly anti-tax climate in the General Assembly.

There's not much light at this stage of the tunnel for DPS' financial coffers, and that illumination ahead isn't the tunnel's end, but a speeding freight train bearing down on the district this year.

DPS budget director Paul LeSieur shared the bad news with a crowd of a few dozen parents and community activists who gathered to hear the district's financial shape.

The presence of such a meeting in February -- nearly four months ahead of the date when the Board of County Commissioners will vote on their budget, which represents virtually all hope of discretionary spending support for schools -- is a sign that the district has figured out the importance of engaging parents and community stakeholders in financial matters early and often.

Two years ago, when budget problems were first brewing, then-superintendent Carl Harris approached the County fretting over a $3 million budget hole, but was stonewalled by the BOCC over a lack of good data and argument on just what the impact would be. Harris drew down the gap from a rainy day fund, exhausting most of it, county manager Mike Ruffin pointed out last year.

Last spring, a group of parents and students calling themselves the "Umbrella Coalition" turned out en masse to call for the county to make up the then-widening gap in state funding, with the umbrella symbolizing a call for the county to open up its reserve funds given the "rainy day" financial situation.

That call drew resistance from county officials who noted the desire to retain the county's AAA financial rating, but it did draw over support from several county commissioners who came to back a small property tax increase to help plug the hole.

No direct linkage to the district's role in encouraging last year's grassroots movement is apparent, but there's no question that DPS did a much better job in 2010 informing parents and the community about the seriousness of the budget gap, much sooner than they did in 2009.

Fast-forward to 2011, and that lobbying and awareness campaign is already in full force.

For one thing, the district's budget advisory committee -- which school board member Nancy Cox told last night's crowd previously only started meeting in January -- is now a year-round task force, at new superintendent Eric Becoats' direction.

"The goal I think will be that it continues to meet throughout the year. The budget isn't just January through June, it's something we need to stay on top of all year round," Cox noted.

And while we're not sure what the composition of the budget advisory committee was in the past, it's noteworthy that this year's group includes both Ellen Reckhow and Brenda Howerton, two BOCC'ers who've tended to be voices on two often-split wings of the commission this cycle.

Howerton and Joe Bowser both came around to the lobbying of the Umbrella Coalition last year and supported calls for maintaining school funding; Reckhow, closely aligned with Becky Heron, has tended to call for more accountability and transparency in school funding and to note the comparatively large local funding for schools in Durham County relative to other large urban districts.

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Whatever Durham's current local supplement, the budget pains and machinations at the state and federal level will seemingly leave little other hope for fiscal help this year.

LeSieur noted that the NC Department of Public Instruction proposed model 5% and 10% cuts in December after Gov. Perdue asked all state agencies to calculate the impacts of such budgetary losses. DPS, he added, extrapolated out a worse-case 15% reduction's impact, too.

He pointed out that some costs, such as facilities overhead expenses and transportation, are relatively fixed based on pupil counts; you have to get kids to school and have a place for them to study, he noted.

In other, more discretionary areas, LeSieur said the state had already proposed cutting everything it could. 

The state maintained a $115 million budget for textbooks, DPS' budget director pointed out, but that fund was slashed to just $2 million this year.

"When the state went through their budget, they did the best they could without annihilating one area or another," LeSieur said. "But in some instances, they were recommending cutting out the entire budget."

At the 5% cut level, DPS projects a loss of 91 classroom positions along with other staff; at the 15% cut level, almost 160 teaching positions could be lost.

The state's cuts would fall disproportionately on K-8 education, with no cuts at the tenth to twelfth grade level, which already has a 27:1 pupil-teacher ratio.

As many as 20 instructional support positions in counseling, nursing and the like could be lost, along with as many as a dozen assistant principals and up to $850,000 in at-risk student funding.

The district also could see as much an eight-figure cut in funding for teaching assistant positions, something that Gov. Perdue said in her state of the state speech this year that she'd fight, though DPS' planners seem to be treating the possibility as a must-plan-for event.

Under LeSiuer's projections, the 10% cut would come after add-backs for state stabilization and discretionary reduction dollars, which according to figures on the district's web site net out some of the pain -- a $2.4 million loss of state funding for FY'12 vs. FY'11.

But on top of those numbers come the $14.6 million in ARRA federal stimulus dollars that will drop out in next year's budget, plus a projected $1.57 million reduction in funds from the lottery.

The ARRA funding for DPS represented an increase in existing federal "Ed Jobs" aid, $6.2 million of which has been held back by the district.

Still, that leaves a $12.3 million hole for the coming year.

DPS projections propose more than $4 million in central office reductions in non-essential cost areas.

And LeSieur was hopeful that the district could make up the remaining $8 million by increasing class sizes through allowing attrition to take away more than 140 classroom teaching positions.

Alternatives include reductions in teacher assistant numbers and reduction in assistant principal positions; mandatory retirement at 30 years' service; reductions to middle school athletics and SAT/PSAT administration; or other, citizen-suggested methods.

Still, these scenarios assume no further financial impact, like that which could come from the desires of the General Assembly's new Republican leaders to increase charter schools and, in the process, siphon away more students and their dollars from DPS.

And LeSieur cautioned that Becoats will certainly want to make adjustments to budget plans to make room for new strategic plan priorities, too. Add to that the opening of a new Sandy Ridge Elementary with its magnet program and the move of the City of Medicine Academy and Lakewood Montessori Middle to new, permanent facilities, and there's some spending increases afoot, too.

For the part of DARE and PTA parents, most seemed poised to want to lobby for maintaining or increasing funding.

Local schools activist Michael Oehler fretted that cuts to at-risk and other funding could disproportionately impact Title 1 schools and the "neediest kids in Durham County," and cautioned that this year's budget was a continuation of a dozen years' worth of declining state support as a percentage of total spending for education.


Nancy Cox

Hi - I do think it is important to note that this meeting was organized by DARE and PTA; this was not a district initiative although the district is happy to meet with concerned citizens. I bring this up because the foresight of groups like PTA and DARE, shows that citiznes understand the need to get ahead of the budget process and to take into account the work that must happen at the state level before we partner with the county to insure adequate funding.

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