In the continuing battle to get more funding for schools, Durham Public Schools is facing harsh criticism from residents.
Earlier this summer, the county commission and the school board sparred over how much money DPS would get from the $170 million bond referendum slated for the November ballot. Commissioners signed off on almost $91 million. But the school board, eyeing the construction of a new Northern High and the renovation of Eno Valley Elementary, wanted more: $110 million, at least. The county, however, got the final say—and it had other priorities, too.
- Durham County Commissioners Michael Page
In addition to school improvements, the referendum, which commissioners approved Monday night, includes almost $45 million for the library, $20 million for Durham Tech, and $14 million for the Museum of Life and Science.
But what exactly would all the money be going to?
For DPS the funds will help build "additional schools buildings and school plant facilities, remodeling, enlarging and reconstructing existing school buildings and other plant facilities and acquiring necessary land, furnishings and equipment." For Durham Tech the bonds will help expand and improve facilities. The library portion will mostly help fund the renovation (or rather remodel) of the Main Library on Roxboro Street. And the museum portion will help build a new parking facility and expand exhibits.
At a county commission meeting Monday night, DPS officials, including Superintendent Bert L’Homme and school board chairman Mike Lee, made their case for the school bond, arguing that DPS needs the funds for big-ticket capital projects.
“Teaching and learning are our priority,” L’Home told commissioners. “But building and maintaining our schools is the work behind the work. We are creating and preserving the infrastructure that enables our students to learn without the distraction of leaky roofs or faulty HVAC systems.”
But several residents countered that DPS’s priorities were skewed. Even though—as L’Homme pointed out—achievement and graduation rates are rising, they said the school system should focus its bond revenue on student needs, not buildings.
“We’d like to see that money go toward our children,” said resident Sheryl Smith. “I’m OK with fixing up the schools, but some money needs to go into these schools to help improve our schools so our children can learn reading. We have too many kids graduating that can’t read.”
While only a handful of residents spoke out against DPS’s portion of the bond—the others met with general approval—commission chairman Michael Page said he wasn’t “feeling the very best. But I really do believe that we can feel a lot better if we come together and let’s work out these differences for the sake of this community.”
The school board will have until November 8 to sell the skeptics. Voters will get to approve—or reject—each of the four bond measures separately.
When it come to other bond measures, however, there wasn't much hoopla.
Others touted the necessity of affordable higher education as college costs continue to rise. John Burness, vice chairman of the Durham Tech board of trustees said bond said previous bond referendums supported courtrooms, but he was "very big on investing in classrooms."
April 2004 saw the county issue a $10.6 million two-thirds general obligation debt—which allowed the county to issue a non-voted on general obligation debt based upon how much the county's general obligation debt was reduced during the previous fiscal year. That allowed for $7.63 million to be dedicated to the Justice Center on Dillard Street and another $2.48 million for the Health and Human Services Complex on East Main Street.
"It is worth noting that in roughly the last twenty years Durham Tech has received resources to expand essentially four classrooms, a teaching auditorium, and two science labs on the main campus. During that same time, Wake (County) has invested something like $330 million in expanding its facilities for community college," Burness told the commissioners.
Commissioners on Monday night seemed troubled by the comments raised about the Durham Public Schools portion of the bond.
"In my experience of being on this board and the school board, it is so important that we do not have a divided community when it comes to passing these bonds," Page said.