Scrutinizing our schools: DPS student achievement lags most NC districts
Scrutinizing our schools: Little of DPS' surplus spending goes to regular classrooms -- so where is it spent?

Scrutinizing our schools: How does Durham's school spending compare to other districts?

This is the third in a six-part series of articles scrutinizing Durham Public Schools performance and financial priorities. Today:comparing DPS spending against other districts. Coming up tomorrow: a deeper dive into how Durham's spending compares with three close peers.

As we noted yesterday, Durham Public Schools trails many to most other North Carolina school systems in numerous standardized measures of performance almost any way we slice things -- by looking at the largest/most urbanized districts, or all systems, or isolated for demographic or income characteristics.

There’s another comparison that’s worth looking at: how much does Durham spend on its public schools, relative to our peers?  After all, given Durham’s bleeding-blue reputation and reality, it’s hard to imagine our community not being willing to pay any asked price for better schools.

The curious reality, though, is Durham’s last-place finish contrasts with the district spending significantly more local augmentation funding than any of its peers.

To me, the data that we’ll discuss over the next couple of days is hard to explain. (We’ve been trying to make sense of it ourselves.)  And it puts some of DPS’ challenges in a different, and important, context that we don’t always see.

For instance, many Durhamites have raised equity concerns over the amount of resources that leave public schools for charters.

And we concur that it’s a big figure, equating to more than $500 per pupil in 2014-15.

Yet DPS’ central administrative/system overhead costs far surpass the three NC large, urban districts closest to it in student population.  In fact, the difference in spending in this one category, per pupil, is greater than what Durham Public Schools loses per pupil to charters.

Ponder that for a moment. And then, welcome to the rabbit hole as we try to explain these numbers.

Durham and Peer District Spending: An Overview

For today’s installment in our series, we’re going to compare DPS’ spending to that of North Carolina’s other large, urban districts.

North Carolina’s a big place. There are districts with fewer than 1,000 students and districts with well over 100,000 students. Indeed, even within the ten largest districts in the state, Durham (at about 33,000 students) trails mega-districts; Wake County alone has almost five times the enrollment of Durham County, for instance.

So besides an overarching look at spending, we’re going to then drill down a bit further to a subset of these districts similar in size to Durham, to control for differences due to economies of scale or population.

The latter isn’t our original idea. DPS and County leaders compared DPS spending against the three districts that we’ll also be analyzing most closely: Johnston, Gaston, and Cabarrus.

All three districts have similar enrollment numbers; they also have very similar exceptional children population ratios. Durham's free and reduced lunch rates are the highest, but all four have nearly or more than half of their students qualifying for this, a useful proxy for SES.

Given the “red umbrella” campaigns and the like anytime the notion of state or county budget cuts impacting school spending, you’d think that Durham’s funding for schools was tenuous relative to its peers.

But that’s not so. DPS receives the 4th highest local funds in the state out of all 115 districts, surpassed only by Chapel Hill/Carrboro, Asheville, and Dare County schools.

(As we’ll discuss during this series, besides the relatively equalized state funding for schools, local communities in North Carolina can supplement public school spending; and, federal funds are available for higher-poverty districts like Durham.)

Durham Public Schools’ local per-pupil expenditure is 250% of the state average, and far exceeds the levels in the other of the ten-largest districts -- including a spending level twice as high as in two similarly-sized counties, Gaston and Cabarrus:


Yet, as we saw yesterday, Durham lags almost all (and often, indeed, all) of these districts on all but a few relative measures of performance.

Of course, it’s difficult to do a same-size comparison of, say, the Durham system to that in Wake, or Charlotte, or Chapel Hill -- all of which are very different sizes from Durham. Instead, as noted above, we’ll focus the analysis today and tomorrow on three relative peers among the above districts: Gaston and Cabarrus (in the metro Charlotte area), and Johnston, to the east of Wake County.

The three counties are slightly smaller (between 181,000 and 211,000 residents). Johnston and Gaston’s poverty rates are slightly lower than Durham’s (17.2% and 17.9% vs. Durham’s 18.5%), though Durham bests both in the rate of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher (45% vs. 18% in Gaston). Cabarrus has a lower poverty rate than the others, at 13.2%

Ultimately, though, the districts’ population-served statistics are where the districts’ similarities come forth:










No. of pupils, 2014-15 (ADM)










Free & reduced lunch qualifying %










Exceptional Children headcount









The one area where the systems are least alike is in racial diversity; all four have lower black and Latino student enrollments than Durham and proportionately more white students.

DPS is also a lower-wealth district than these peers -- though all three approach having half of their student population eligible for free/reduced lunch, at rates three or more times the incidence of poverty overall in their communities.

Despite these differences, we still think this is a useful lens, particularly for financial analysis. Starting with similar-size districts is helpful to account for staffing efficiencies and economies of scale, while the similarities in EC membership and, relatively speaking, F&RL qualification make these useful for comparative purposes.

While they’re harder to compare financially due to their larger sizes, other districts with similar racial demographics -- notably Cumberland and Charlotte-Mecklenburg -- performed significantly better than Durham among large districts in standardized testing, both as a whole and among non-white populations. (Notably, Charlotte has been far more progressive than Durham in its use of positive behavior intervention programs to keep students in school, relying far less on controversial, likely racially-disparate out-of-school suspensions as a technique. We wonder if this is a contributing factor to Durham’s performance gaps relative to peer systems.)

As the focus in this story is largely one of spending, we’re comfortable staying with Cabarrus, Gaston and Johnston as our peer set.


Comparing the Districts’ Spending

The first item to note is that in comparing DPS to these other three districts, Durham spends more on its pupils -- a lot more.

As this graph from the NC DPI report card system shows, Durham’s school spending has been several thousand dollars higher than the other three similarly-sized districts for more than a decade:


Durham receives similar state funding to the three other peer local education agencies. And, thanks in part to programs such as federal support for Title I schools, Durham also has access to as much as double the federal and grant agency funding that other peer districts do.

Yet it is in the local funding amount -- $131.7 million -- where DPS has access to resources well beyond those of its peers.  That marks nearly $75 million more in school funding than Cabarrus, DPS’ nearest peer ($56.5 million), or Johnston ($54.7 million), or Gaston ($47.0 million.)

When all is said and done, in fact, the total spending in Durham outpaces the other three districts by between $80 million and $120 million:

  • Durham: $387.1 million
  • Johnston: $306.8 million
  • Gaston: $268.4 million
  • Cabarrus: $260.5 million

Of course, not all of this money is kept by DPS.  Charter schools, as DPS leadership has long pointed out, receive a portion of this money for those Durham students who leave DPS for charters.

In DPS’ case, the total spending on “non-programmed charges” -- most, but not all of which was for charter schools -- amounted to $18 million, a figure that far exceeded Cabarrus ($3.3 million), Gaston ($4.6 million), or Johnston ($410,000).

$18 million sounds like a lot of money. It is, indeed, a lot of money. But we have to consider that expenditure in line with the strong local funding Durham has undertaken -- and in proportion to the entirety of a nearly $400 million budget.

To do so, let’s look at the 2014-15 spending in all four districts on a per-pupil basis, going back to the headcount we looked at earlier. The figures below are normalized against the number of pupils in each system.  In the case of charter funding, this equates to the theoretical maximum per-student level of funding that could be available if DPS got back all the money that it loses to charter students and to other non-programmed charges.






Instructional Services





System-Wide Support Services





Ancillary Services





Non-Programmed Charges --
includes charter school funding





Capital Outlay





Total FY 2014-15





Total FY 2014-15 -
less charter schools
and non-programmed charges






Even after accounting for the per-pupil impact of charters and other government transfers, Durham still spends $2,415 per student more than the three peer counties under comparison.

On instructional services -- including mainstream, special education, and alternative programs -- DPS spends about $1,700 to $2,000 more than all the other districts.

At the same time, when it comes to “system-wide support services” -- another way of saying central administration operations -- Durham spends nearly 50% more per student than either Johnston or Gaston do, and nearly $400 per pupil more than Cabarrus.

Indeed, as we’ll talk about in tomorrow’s follow-up to this story, the difference in what Durham spends for administrative costs versus Gaston or Johnston is greater than all of DPS’ lost revenue due to charters put together.  (And, there’s some interesting patterns deserving scrutiny in the instructional spending bucket, too.)

For now, what’s the bottom line?

As we saw yesterday, DPS performs no better in aggregate testing than these three districts do -- indeed, DPS lags all of them. By the admittedly problematic standardized measures we wrote about yesterday, these districts perform as well or better than DPS in almost every category (save for white students.)  

Yet all three districts also spend significantly less than Durham, and receive thousands of dollars less per year in per-pupil funding -- even after controlling for Durham’s high charter school outflows.

This is not to say Durham shouldn’t be proud to lead our large district peers in local spending. Arguably, we should.

But the question for those who care about public education should be, are we spending money in the right ways to ensure students the best education possible?

Asking that question is not a prelude to suggesting that we spend less.  Instead, it is an invitation to scrutiny: to ask if we’re getting our money’s worth (we don’t seem to be) and what our leaders have been doing in their oversight of the system (we’d sure like to know.)

Tomorrow, in the fourth part of our series, we’ll take a closer look at the differences between Durham, Gaston, Johnston and Cabarrus, in terms of where we are (and aren’t) spending money.  


Data sources:


Will Wilson

I wish we could upload plots into these comments...


I can't really say this enough, but thanks once again for your unparalleled coverage of Durham. Looking forward to seeing the rest of the series.


This is an extremely verbose and repetitive way of saying DPS spends markedly more per student than comparable districts with no real results to show for it.

But then the other side of the coin: assertions without any reasoning to back them up: "This is not to say Durham shouldn’t be proud to lead our large district peers in local spending. Arguably, we should." Given the entire outlay of the article, why should any taxpayer in Durham be proud of spending that has, per your own assertions, no demonstrable value?

Todd P.

Thank you for this coverage. This is an important conversation to be having, especially considering what the legislature might decide to do to "fix" schools that are not performing. Given their tendency to interfere with local government in urban (Democratic) areas, there's no telling how long we have before they decide to "fix" DPS by closing certain schools and inviting charters to take over.


I wonder if it's because the resources are not allocated equally across the schools and students. Is that possible? For example, do the high performing magnet schools get the bulk of the resources?

Rob G

Is there any data on teacher experience in the different districts? It'd be interesting to see the breakdown of teachers with 0-3 years; 4-8 years; and 9+ year experience in the 3 districts.

One hypothesis can be that DPS performs worse and spends more due to having inexperienced teachers. More recruitment costs can add to the administrative costs and having a higher percentage of teachers in training/development programs would add up in the cost of instructional services.


Kevin, good stuff looking forward to more. Tomorrow when you address spending per student at individual schools will you let us know if your numbers include all expenditures for said schools. Magnets get a bad rap in these discussions but magnets do not have some programs that traditional schools have such as marching band and football and all the transportation costs that go along with these. Looking forward to hearing more on the data behind the numbers. Lastly in other districts nonprofits have been set up to review the very things you are doing. Thanks for filling this void in Durham!

Jeff Bakalchuck

@Kevin: "This is not to say Durham shouldn’t be proud to lead our large district peers in local spending. Arguably, we should."

If we were getting results from that extra spending that we would have a reason to be proud.

Yes, I am so proud that we lead our peers in Administrative waste per pupil.

Jeff Bakalchuck

Some of the line items just jump out at you and scream "What the heck is going on here".

For example:

8100 Payments to Other Governmental Units 18,003,749.57 .

That is more than double the other 3 peer districts combined. That's over 500 dollar per student.

6620 Human Resource Services 2,975,581.81

That's more than the other 3 peer districts combined.

6560 Warehouse & Delivery Services 1,046,784.32

The other 3 peer districts are all under 50,000.

6940 Leadership Services 3,127,264.88

That's 2 to 3 times what peer districts spend.
I wonder how much of that was Eric Becoats's bus trips

For those of you keeping score at home those 4 line items add up to cool 25 million greenbacks.

As Everett Dirksen used to say " "A million here, a million there, pretty soon you're talking real money."

Kevin Davis

@Jeff: We'll be calling out a number of the figures you're citing tomorrow. What I mean is that our community has made investing in education a priority -- but the data suggest that much of the money is not being spent as well as it could (i.e., on classroom instruction and direct student-facing functions.)

Scott Carter

Hi Kevin, You wrote "The one area where the systems are least alike is in racial diversity; all four have lower black and Latino student enrollments than Durham and proportionately more white students." I think it is a disservice to your readers and to the quality of your article to gloss over the racial disparity of the comparison school districts by not quantifying the difference in racial diversity in the student populations: Cabarrus - 58% white, Gaston - 62% white, Johnston - 59% white, Durham - 19% white. The max of the Hispanic and Black populations of the other three systems is 37% where DPS's Hispanic and Black population is 76%. Do you not think this is significant? I would expect that in an article where you are investigating the possible reasons for higher expenditures with lower outcomes that you would highlight a demographic difference of this magnitude. Perhaps there are social or other factors linked to this disparity that contribute to the DPS results.


Perhaps more important than the flow of money from DPS to charters is the flow of concerned and involved parents from DPS to charters .... Ever been to the Eastway Elementary Strawberry Festival held every year? Yeah, me neither.

Involved parents can be a stabilizing force for the children and can help hold schools accountable by being there on the ground on a regular basis. But we now have a vicious cycle of involved/concerned parents getting their children in magnets, or pulling them into charters or private schools, or moving out of Durham. "Regular" public schools get worse, and these parents are even more motivated to get their kids in other schools.


Concerned parents also send their kids to private schools, have for 50 years. There aren't THAT many charter options today that would flip dps to ruin suddenly.

Kevin Davis

@Scott -- the racial difference is a significant variation between these districts. And certainly, it could explain some of the drivers of performance and cost.

Yet at least one other district in the state does significantly better than Durham in ways that I would say invite scrutiny.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a similar demographic to DPS -- 30% white, 40% black, 21% Latino, 9% other. Yet their GLP rates for black students in 2014-15 was 43.9% -- almost 10% higher than DPS, though still unacceptably low. For Latino students, it was 48.2%, nearly 12% higher.

With more per-student funding, and a highly-educated community at its back, what explains the difference in performance? Certainly Charlotte and Durham share many of the same problems of poverty, crime, urban disinvestment, racism, social inequality.

You are correct that many other systems with large non-white populations have scores for minority populations that are at or below DPS'. Yet almost all of these other systems are in economically hard-hit eastern North Carolina where there is a literal avalanche of social and fiscal disadvantage. Durham is one of NC's wealthiest counties and most educated, with far more advantage than those. In this comparison set, CMS strikes me as the clearly correct model for comparison -- and we are lagging far, far behind.

Katharine Eggleston

Some folks have suggested that the series does not go far enough to explore race as an explanation for differences in academic performance between Durham and other districts, with one writing "perhaps there are social or other factors linked to this [racial] disparity that contribute to the DPS results."

Perhaps, but this suggests an expectation of failure for students of color, that, "well, DPS has a lot of students of color, so of course we should expect DPS to have worse academic outcomes even with higher spending."

Unfortunately, it seems that the ease with which demographics can be pointed to as an explanation of poor academic performance has lulled DPS administrators, elected officials, and the public into numbness to this issue over the course of many years. That over 50% of DPS students are performing below grade level should spark outrage, not tacit acceptance.

This series is evaluating DPS spending priorities as a potential source of explanations for lagging academic outcomes for its students. That DPS serves a large number of students of color only makes this work more important.

Having stewardship of the educations of 25,000 students of color gives DPS a heightened responsibility to make sure it is spending its money in ways that will give those students the best chance of success compared to their white peers.

Will Wilson

An important comparison is poverty through reduced and free lunches. Educational outcomes across the state are driven by poverty, and the strong correlation between poverty and race in Durham simply makes the demographics a proxy for poverty. The property tax funding of schools also makes local funding just one small part of total funding that comes from local, state, and federal sources. Can you make the comparisons of total funding, not just local funding? I sure wish I could upload a bunch of plots to show the importance of poverty, especially the consequences meted out by the Republican legislature.

Alex Modestou

The third article in the series showed that DPS outspends the other of the 10 largest districts in the state by an average of over $2,000 per pupil in total dollars. The vast majority of the additional funds comes from our local investment in education. While NC is ranked 47th nationally in per pupil spending, thanks to local tax dollars picking up the state's slack, DPS's overall per pupil spending is actually very close to the national average.

Across the 115 districts in the state, there is a clear trend towards decreasing academic performance with increasing poverty rates. However, there is a lot of variability about the trend line, with many districts performing relatively well despite high rates of F&RL eligibility. DPS is not one of those districts.

One of the questions being explored here is whether DPS is fully leveraging its resources to attempt to ameliorate the effects of poverty. DPS's internal financial data and comparative statistics with the other 114 districts across the state indicate that DPS could be doing a much better job. In the 2014/15 academic year, 104 districts in the state provided better academic outcomes for economically disadvantaged students. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of districts with equal or greater rates of F&RL eligibility still provide better academic outcomes for students overall than DPS.

Durham Stats

Someone asked about plots showing the importance of poverty. I have looked at the relationship between school performance and free-reduced price lunch by district and found the relationships similar.
The distinction is rather than comparing overall district test performance and overall FRPL, I looked at school level data and compared the -relationship- by district. They are mostly pretty similar.

I actually made an interactive graph where you can put in other comparison districts instead of the neighboring ones I was interested in.

I had intended to look at finance data next but have not had the time.

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