Scrutinizing our schools: How does Durham's school spending compare to other districts?
Scrutinizing our schools: How does DPS allocate classroom and school resources?

Scrutinizing our schools: Little of DPS' surplus spending goes to regular classrooms -- so where is it spent?

This is the fourth in a six-part series of articles scrutinizing Durham Public Schools performance and financial priorities. Today: a deeper dive into how Durham's spending compares with three close peers. Tomorrow: a closer look at teacher allocation and school leadership services, and a wrap-up to our series.

As we saw yesterday, Durham Public Schools (DPS) spends more per pupil than any of the other large urban districts in the state. Out of all 115 NC school districts, only Asheville, Chapel-Hill/Carrboro, and Dare County contribute more local dollars (per pupil) to public education.

Yet DPS’ leadership in spending isn’t matched by high or even acceptable performance outcomes, relative to large districts, peer districts, or low-SES/high-need districts.

This paradox presents the linchpin of the troubling data we’re trying to understand in looking at DPS:

  • With such a striking lag in performance, and such a glaring difference in white vs. minority performance, how can DPS be meeting its requirement to provide an equal educational opportunity for all?
  • And, if Durham is outspending its peers for poor results, where are we “spending in the wrong ways,” or where could taxpayer dollars go to create better outcomes?

In today’s installment of the series, we’re going to drill in further to the spending question to try to explain the significant gap in spending between DPS and its most similar North Carolina peer districts -- Cabarrus, Johnston, and Gaston.

While 77% of Durham’s spending surplus versus those three systems does go to what the NC DPI calls “instructional” services, comparatively little -- only about one in every four dollars in this category -- goes to regular classroom instruction.

Nearly the same one in four dollars goes towards spending on in-school resources like principals, non-instructional school support staff, and other functions. And, the remainder goes to exceptional children and alternative instructional programs -- two areas where DPS spends much more than its peers, despite having almost identically-sized EC student populations.

And as to administrative spending?  The hard truth is, if DPS cut its spending in these central office functions to the average level of its three peers, it could fully fund universal Pre-K -- or alternatively, could recapture every dollar “lost” to charter schools.

Remember that rabbit hole? It gets murkier, and a bit more disorienting, the deeper we get.

Classroom and Instructional Spending

Given DPS’ significant local funding advantage, one would think the district’s opportunity for additional spending would be a boon for classroom instruction.

Comparing the four districts in their spending on regular instructional services -- that is, excluding exceptional children and alternative programs students -- DPS spent $141.4 million in 2014-2015.

Johnston was close, at $133.5 million; Gaston and Cabarrus spent $112.1 million and $111.6 million, respectively.

As you’d expect, on a per-pupil basis, DPS spent $4,252 per student on regular classroom instruction, to Johnston’s $3,946, Gaston’s $3,583, and $3,710.

But compare those per-pupil figures to these:

  • $2,415 -- the average per-pupil advantage DPS has over the three comparison districts in total spending after adjusting for charter school spending
  • $2,295 -- the per-pupil advantage DPS has over its three peer districts just in local funding.

Given that mainstream classroom education is the overwhelming point of DPS’ mission, I would have assumed that the bulk of DPS’ extra spending and resources would find its way to this mission.

But, it doesn’t. The $506 per pupil advantage in DPS spending in this category reflects only 21% of Durham’s overall extra school spending compared to Cabarrus, Gaston and Johnston.

Or viewed another way, irrespective of local funding vs. DPS’ other funding sources: DPS spends significantly less of its budget on regular instructional services than these three peer districts do:

  • Durham: 36.5% of budget supports Regular Instructional Services
  • Cabarrus: 42.8%
  • Gaston: 41.8%
  • Johnston: 43.5%

All told, if DPS’ funding for regular classroom instructional services matched its peer districts, this would translate to nearly $24 million in additional annual spending on mainstream instructional services.

If we’re spending $2,415 more per pupil -- and 79% of that money is going somewhere other than regular classroom instruction -- just where the heck is it going to?

In-School Support Services and Alternative Instructional Programs

For every $1 of extra spending we see DPS using towards regular classroom instruction, it spends nearly that same $1 on additional in-school support resources -- and nearly two dollars on programs for special populations, such as exceptional children classes and AIG (gifted) programs.

Let’s look first at those support services: school leadership services (principals/assistant principals and clerical staff), co-curricular services, and support functions like guidance, school health and security services, school IT, and educational media services.

DPS outspends its peers by $8.6 million on school support functions; $1.7 million on student accounting services; and, a whopping $6.0 million on school leadership, bolstering its state-allocated 33.1 assistant principal headcount with another 47.0 FTEs on the district’s dime -- two issues we’ll look at more closely tomorrow.

Ironically, although it is widely acknowledged by DPS board members that children from economically disadvantaged households benefit from support services including early childhood education and school-based health services, these are two of the very few categories in which DPS actually spends less than its peer districts.

Compared to Gaston (which is closest to DPS in the number of economically disadvantaged students that it serves out of all three peers), Gaston spends $5.3 million annually on pre-K, compared to DPS’ $1.9 million, and $3.7 million compared to DPS’ $1.4 million on health services.

Combined, Gaston invests $6.7 million more annually in Pre-K and health support, despite having an operating budget $119 million below that of DPS. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when it comes to K-12 remedial services, the tables are turned, with DPS spending about $7 million more annually than Gaston.

Besides support services, special classroom environments appear to consume a disproportionate share of the extra spending.

By contrast with its three peers, DPS spends more as a percentage of its budget than any of its peers on so-called “special population instructional services” -- a grouping that includes both so-called AIG (talented/gifted) programs as well as students with special learning needs -- and alternative programs.

DPS last year spent $32.7 million more than its three peers in this area, or nearly $916 per pupil. That dwarfs the nearly $506 per pupil in extra regular classroom instruction spending. This included:

  • AIG programs: $155 per pupil ($102 per pupil more than peer districts)
  • Students with disabilities: $972.37 per pupil ($286 per pupil more than peer districts)
  • Remedial/supplemental K-12 services: $521.21 per pupil ($215 more than peers)
  • Limited English Proficiency students: $199.95 per pupil ($128 more than peers)

In total, DPS spends $2,232 on EC/alternative programs per pupil (excluding AIG) -- versus $4,252 per pupil for regular instructional services.  This compares to an average of $1,417 per pupil for students in Cabarrus, Gaston and Johnston County.

A different mix of students than these peer districts might explain the matter (e.g., if Durham had a higher rate of exceptional children in its population.)

But, at least against the top-line EC headcount, it doesn’t: 13.6% of DPS’ 2014-15 population were EC students, vs. 12.1% in Cabarrus, 14.1% in Gaston, and 15.9% in Johnston.

Of course, these populations include many that are high-risk and face many disadvantages in life; and, it seems almost Dickensian to consider scrutinizing that spending.  Yet, given DPS’ lagging performance in academic achievement in these students’ measures, too, we must ask again: why are outcomes seeming to lag the spending?


Central Office Administrative Positions

Ultimately, just over three quarters of Durham’s extra spending goes to instructional categories -- albeit that’s a metric that includes school support functions and non-regular classroom needs absorbing the great bulk of any differential excess spending.

While administrative expenses in DPS and its peer systems are, as one would expect, smaller than instructional costs, they represent an important area for scrutiny since they only touch student learning indirectly at best.

And after comparing data between DPS and peer systems, we’re curious why these expenses don’t get as much scrutiny as, say, spending on charter schools.

DPS leaders and elected officials routinely bemoan the revenue lost to charter schools. And indeed, DPS’ 2014-15 budget figures show $18 million in transfers to other government units -- largely for charters, and representing $15.4 million more than its three peer districts.

Yet DPS in the same year spent $21.9 million more on central office expenses than its peers.

Put another way, if DPS’ central administrative spending matched its peers, it could fully cover the entire impact of charter schools with several million dollars to spare. (Or, for that matter, the full cost of universal Pre-K for 4-year-olds.)

Drilling into specific categories of central administration, compared to its three peer counties by size, DPS spends more in just about every area of overhead:

  • $1.5 million more on financial services
  • $1.8 million more on human resources
  • $1.7 million more on leadership services
  • $500,000 more on public relations

So where does the extra spending go?

For one thing, compared to these peer systems, Durham Public Schools at least appears to have a significantly larger administrative or “middle management” staffing layer in its budget.

DPS’ budget includes 69 positions flagged as directors and supervisors for its 33,300 student population, with an average salary of $77,700 for these positions, for nearly $5.3 million.

By comparison, Gaston County’s 31,100 student district has a similar average salary for central administrative directors and supervisors ($78,000), but notes only 13 employees in these positions.  This translates to a nearly $4 million difference.

This higher spending level stands out more when compared to Cumberland County (Fayetteville), a district with nearly 20,000 more students than DPS, yet which spends over $3.5 million less on directors/supervisors than DPS.

Another area of difference: spending on senior leadership positions.

In addition to the six-figure maximum allowable state salaries for their positions, the superintendent receives a local supplement of $86,000, two assistant superintendents receive a local supplement of $32,541, the CFO receives a local supplement of $28,768, and five associate superintendents receive a local supplement of $25,006.

In total, DPS spends over $1.1 million in salary alone for a superintendent and seven assistant superintendents. Meanwhile, Cumberland’s significantly larger district has the same number of senior leaders -- and a total budget of $740,000.

There are other curiosities that stand out in DPS’ administrative budget, too.

One unique area of difference? Warehousing. The NC DPI charter of accounts defines the warehouse services as “costs of activities concerned with the receiving, storing, and distributing of supplies, furniture, equipment, materials, and mail.“

DPS is the only district of its size in the state listing expenses for warehouse services, at a cost of over $1 million per year. From what we’ve heard from those listening to the DPS budget process, this seems unique among the peer districts; we surmise the other districts skip this step, ordering supplies and materials directly from vendors, and store supplies and equipment on site.

All together, though, the additional headcount of Durham Public Schools has to be one of the areas for close scrutiny during the budget process.

Compared to the three districts we’ve looked at today and yesterday, DPS has an average of 983 more full-time equivalent (FTE) positions.

Yet it has only 419 more teachers, on average, than these three peers. The remainder of extra staffing is all in non-instructional or support roles.

Even if our administrative staffing was merely equivalent to the other three peer districts, and the overall budget was unchanged -- that would translate to 564 more teachers, enough to reduce DPS’ students-per-teacher ratio from nearly 14:1 to about 11:1.

What difference in students’ lives could nearly 600 more teachers make?

But that’s just one possible path we could imagine DPS leadership taking.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the decisions made in the past on staffing, vis a vis teacher and principal headcounts and allocations.


Source Data:



Tab 4b on the compensation worksheets... why are almost all schools given fewer teacher positions than the state allotment dictates they should have?

I ask this as my daughter sits in a DPS 1st grade classroom with 25 students.

Jeff Bakalchuck

Another excellent post Kevin. BTW it's the 4th in the series, not the 3rd.

DPS seems to have its priorities all wrong. $500,000 more for PR but millions less for Pre-K than peer districts?

And how about looking where those Pre-k dollars are spent? How much of it goes to students in the walk zone for Watts Montessori, which just happens to be one of the more affluent areas in Durham.

Kevin Davis

Natalie and Jeff -- tomorrow's _fifth_ story in the series talks a bit on both of those topics. For Watts/Morehead, the data were curious, but we assume (?) that's linked to Pre-K, not the base program.

(Third vs. fourth, now corrected.)


I'm wondering about the EC component as well. I've never seen a district as good as DPS at early identifying and enrolling kids in EC classes, activities, and with 1:1 engagement. Could it be that DPS does a great job with EC and a rather crappy job at other aspects?

@Jeff - you're looking at less than 150 kids in pre-k at Watts and Morehead.
I think people get lost in the 'walk zone' 'charters' 'politician' debates and don't see the real issue that a lot of money is being directed ... elsewhere... as Kevin is writing here

@Kevin - is there any way to see what those 69 positions are? Is it that they have in-housed instructional development instead of hiring consultants? Is it that they have 4 people in student assignment filling out paper forms when there should be 1 and on a computer? Are they older and a the top of compensation bands?

Jeff Bakalchuck


I agree that it's a small number of students in Pre-K at Watts and Morehead. However, given that Durham is spending far less on Pre-K than it's peers the fact that affluent neighborhoods are vastly over-represented shows a problem in terms of DPS's priorities. Pre-K is more than just an educational program. It's significant financial benefit to parents. That DPS would skew that benefit towards more affluent parents at the expense of working class parents speaks volumes.

Todd P.

"What difference in students’ lives could nearly 600 more teachers make?"

600 more teachers would make a tremendoes difference. Of course, there would need to be 600 more classrooms for them to teach in. I think DPS had 115 or so 'mobile classrooms' across the district in the last report I saw, so that's another can of funding worms.

It is good to see that there is a potential source of funds for Pre-K for 4-year olds, which seems to be a great way to close the achievement gap. The question now is how to make that money available.

Kevin Davis

@Jeff -- we take a bit of a look at this tomorrow. TBH, Watts/Morehead stand out on spending per pupil above all elementary schools, but we didn't know for sure that that didn't include Pre-K. Pre-K is listed on the DPS site as part of a Montessori curriculum which we assumed drove part of that presence. And, DPS lists Pre-K options for other populations on their web site; we couldn't tell if that was funded elsewhere in the budget. Long story short, we chalked it up to a curiosity that needed to be further evaluated. Given that in general, DPS per-pupil spending on instruction resources rose with the F&RL level, there seemed to be equity at an overarching level. More on this (more articulately written, hopefully) tomorrow in part five.

Alex Modestou


Regarding 1st grade teaching positions, this is an excellent question to ask the school board at their next meeting on January 28 at 6:30 PM. You'll see on tab 4A of the same workbook you were looking at that the state state provides DPS with funding for one 1st grade teacher for every 17 students.

On EC, with all of the caveats about standardized testing that Kevin has mentioned in mind, we can say this: just 15.5% of EC students in DPS are at grade level, and DPS ranks 87th out of 115 districts on this metric. Although academic achievement for EC students is very low across the state, there are still six districts with EC grade level proficiency more than twice the rate in DPS. It's possible that EC students in DPS face challenges beyond those faced by EC students in some other districts, but I think that any serious EC program evaluation should at least consider those comparative statistics.

Kevin Davis

A spreadsheet with info on the 69 supervisors/directors has been added to the source data linked in the article.

The comments to this entry are closed.