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Scrutinizing our schools: Parting thoughts on why this matters, and an opportunity for optimism?

This is the last in a six-part series scrutinizing performance, spending and priorities in Durham Public Schools.

We’ve seen this week a set of data that’s hard to stomach.

Despite an extremely generous comparative level of local funding -- and total spending levels that are, on a per-pupil basis, at the top of those in peer counties -- Durham students’ academic performance lags other North Carolina counties, by numerous measures.

We’d argue that this is no less than an enormous risk factor for the future success and well-being of the community.

Look at all the attention paid in recent years to finding ways to saving Durham’s “disconnected youth,” the tranche of Durham’s youngest residents who are not connected to schools, jobs, civic structures, and the like -- and, therefore, those most likely to find connection in gangs or other antisocial outcome:

Or look at the names, faces and ages of those who have been arrested in so many of the shootings and murders plaguing our community in recent months: almost all were young men, often accused of crimes at an age where one would hope they would be in school, not the detention center.  

As MDC noted in their report on disconnected youth:

Young people who fail to complete high school earn lower wages and are much more likely to become long term unemployed than their more educated peers. In 2006, the median weekly wage for high school dropouts 25 and older was $419; for holders of an associate’s degree, $721. According to Wald and Martinez (2003), in 2000, a period of low unemployment, barely more than 50 percent of high school dropouts were employed, contrasted with 93 percent of adults holding an associate’s degree or better. Between 1997 and 2001, over a quarter of high school dropouts were unemployed for a year or longer. Even more ominously, 16 percent of all young men aged 18 to 24 who lack a high school degree or General Educational Development certificate (GED) are estimated to be in prison or on parole at any given time. The corresponding figure for African-American males is 30 percent, higher than the proportion of African American males in higher education (Wald and Martinez, 2003).

In Durham Public Schools, 80.7% of students graduate in four years; the five year cohort rate is 85.8%.

That’s nearly one in seven youth, still, who find themselves in the economic and social blind-alley of disconnection. To contemplate that 16% of them -- or nearly one in three, among African-Americans -- are in prison or parole is a horrifying thought.

Yet we should be just as concerned that, even among the majority who do graduate -- only 35% do so while meeting the state’s standards for college and career readiness.

That metric is intended to be met by all who receive a diploma. Where does this leave our youth who are completing high school yet failing to demonstrate a full readiness for the demands of further education or a career?

How will they compete in the global economy? How will we keep this much larger group from becoming at risk for the outcomes of underemployment, underutilization, alienation?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Undoubtedly, Durham faces unique challenges in ensuring acceptable academic outcomes for all students.

Unfortunately, instead of using some of the strongest local funding in the state to full advantage, we’ve raised data this week that suggests DPS may be shortchanging itself with administrative inefficiencies and worrisome spending priorities.

The state general assembly isn’t doing local school districts any favors with its underwhelming funding allotments, of course. Currently, Durham taxpayers are picking up the slack; more local tax dollars go to towards education than any other city or county service.

It behooves concerned Durham citizens to pay more attention to what’s happening in the Fuller building, and demand that DPS spend money in the right ways.

If DPS utilized all of its current tax dollars to maximize student achievement, of course, that still may not be enough to provide an equal educational opportunity for all. As a community, we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there, but we must get there first.

DPS superintendent Dr. L’Homme and CFO Aaron Beaulieu inherited this budget and its implicit priorities from the troubled Becoats administrations and those before it. To his credit, Beaulieu brought the comparative study with Gaston, Johnston, and Cabarrus forward to the DPS budget advisory committee.

Coming up on their second budget cycle with the district, we must hope that they are now familiar enough with DPS’s structure and operations that they can identify opportunities for spending to reprioritized to categories with more direct impact on student learning.

As we write these words, the district is at the beginning of the budget development cycle for the 2016-17 academic year.

Now is the time for the public to weigh in on these issues and to ask to tough questions of the school board and the county commissioners, who have oversight responsibility and the final say over local school funding.

And as we’re entering the election cycle for three school board seats (though only one of which is a contested race) and for all five of the county commission seats, we hope that these issues will be discussed and debated on the campaign trail.


Jeff Bakalchuck

@Kevin This was a wonderful series of articles and certainly lived up to the high standards we've come to expect from BCR.

Maybe for your next exposé you can tackle the 800 lbs gorilla that nobody seems to want to talk about with regard to our schools. That's the issue of race.

According to 2104/15 data: 1/3 of DPS schools are hyper-segregated. That is less than 5% of the students are white. 15% are less than 2% white. One schools is even 0%.

Dave Neill

This was some great work by Bull City Rising. Your writing has yet to receive half the attention it deserves.

Durham Public Schools is a failing school system. Take a deep breath. Let that sink in.

Despite unique advantages among North Carolina's public schools (it has no "unique" challenges), it is failing ... and has long been doing so in spectacular fashion.

Footnote: It might be easy to call DPS a "failed" school system but for an increasingly worrisome truth -- I am the father of a DPS 3rd grader. I have to cling to hope ... no matter how irrational it appears that hope may be.

Susan Ross

Excellent analysis BCR, thank you.

I am a great believer in public education and in Durham, but it is hard to stand up for a status quo that really is not working. We must realign things before everyone who can figure out how to get out (through private or charter education) abandons DPS. I am a white graduate of Hillside from back in the '70s and we all faced similar challenges of race and economic equality but we had better outcomes.

A critical first step is not just identifying what makes it difficult but also acknowledging the places we may have gone down the wrong well-intentioned path. Poor counties all over the state have so little compared to the resources we have, particularly through Duke and NCCU. We all need to be part of the solution.

This series has been most helpful.


In related news, this is a message sent out today from Bert L'Homme (DPS superintendent) to staff of DPS:

Dear colleagues:

All of us in Durham Public Schools work hard every single day for our students and schools. We support teaching and learning. We make a difference.

We do all this in an increasingly difficult budget situation. Last year, we cut a number of vacant positions in Central Services and made other reductions in order to balance the budget, while trying to address teacher supplements and classified staff compensation that have been flat for too long. We also dipped into savings—our fund balance—to cover some recurring costs. As you know, money spent from a savings account doesn’t come back without reducing spending in other areas.

This year we are in the same situation, only with a much smaller fund balance and fewer vacant positions. In order simply to balance the 2016-17 budget—before we even begin to look at our Board’s expansion priorities—we will need to identify $9 million in budget cuts or new revenue. Depending on the General Assembly’s actions this spring, we may need even more. (If the General Assembly raises teacher and staff salaries, as we expect, we will need to spend more on our locally-funded positions.)

I am writing this to let you know that our leadership team is working on contingency plans to make significant cuts in the 2016-17 budget, beginning with (but not limited to) Central Services, with a priority on protecting classroom teaching positions. We have to become leaner and more efficient in order to direct a higher proportion of our resources to our students and schools.

We shared with our community last year that Durham Public Schools has been extremely lucky since the economic downturn began almost eight years ago. We avoided making the kinds of incremental but significant budget reductions that other North Carolina districts made over the years. That is not sustainable this year.

I came back to Durham Public Schools because I want to do more for Durham’s children, teachers, staff, and schools. It is very hard for me to even consider that we must do less in some areas, and that some good and hardworking people may not be able to continue with us.

But in addition to our fiscal and legal responsibility to balance our budget, we have a responsibility to our students and their families to ensure that the programs and positions we fund have the strongest possible impact on student achievement—that every dollar is spent to its highest and best use of preparing our students for college and career. Regardless of the organizational changes that our budget requires us to make, the end result must be that Durham Public Schools does more, as a whole, for our students, and that as a result our students achieve more.

This will be a long and difficult process. I cannot tell you what the final outcome will be, but there will be significant changes. I promise you that I will keep you informed along the way. If you have any questions or concerns, please share them with your principal or supervisor.

I appreciate everything you do and have done for our students and Durham Public Schools.


Bert L’Homme


I'll be quite interested to learn where they decide to make cuts in light of the analysis here at BCR...


Can the $4 billion in additional value created through the property re-appraisal help in any way?

Bo H

Dr. L'Homme is in a real bind: it's abundantly clear from this devastating series of articles that Durham residents are spending WAY too much on administrative costs relative to other districts, but to begin to address those costs and free up desperately needed $$ to improve classroom results a bunch of people will lose good-paying jobs. This will of course cause a great deal of angst in the community, but ultimately it must be endured to lay a foundation for the revitalization of public education in Durham. People of good will who care about this community and understand the synergy between education and public health need to prepare for the political battles ahead, and support leaders who are willing to make tough decisions for the good of our children.

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