In Durham Public Schools, budget cuts chip away at the classroom | Durham County | Indy Week

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In Durham Public Schools, budget cuts chip away at the classroom



Durham teacher Carla Brown did her best to elude her principal at Northern High School last week, even avoiding the school's main hallway near his office. Principal John Colclough still found her.

"You're on the list," Colclough told her—the list of hundreds of teachers in Durham who learned last week that they won't have jobs with the school system after June. Brown decided not to tell her students. Other teachers who had been notified couldn't hold it in.

"Some of the teachers were so upset that they just blurted it out in class," said Brown, who started teaching English three years ago after a midlife career change.

Many saw it coming. The anxiety among teachers and other Durham schools employees has been building since the school board eliminated nearly 300 jobs last summer.

The budget for the 2010–11 school year is even more dire. The dearth of funds is due to a more than $700 million state budget deficit, due in part to lagging revenues from sales and income taxes, byproducts of the recession. According to an initial budget forecast, Durham could lose $20 million in state and local funds for the 2010–11 school year, which could cost the district as many as 323 jobs, including 237 teaching positions.

School officials won't know how many jobs the district will lose until state and county leaders adopt their respective budgets later this summer. There's even talk at the federal level of emergency assistance being doled out to schools. Nonetheless, Durham officials have to prepare for the worst, notifying select teachers (mostly those with less experience) that they won't have jobs next year.

That means most class sizes will increase even though many studies have shown that students perform better in smaller classes with lower student-teacher ratios.

The schools won't be violating state law on classroom size because during last year's budget crisis, legislators allowed schools to exceed caps for grades 4-12 through next year, said Paul LeSieur, director of school business services for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction

However, students in grades K-3 will remain protected from large class sizes: The district may not have more than 24 students per class and the it must maintain an average of 21 students per K-3 teacher districtwide.

The cuts also eliminate valuable teacher training, such as the mentoring program the district had offered to new teachers since 2005.

The reductions leave people such as Gina Frutig, a fourth-grade teacher at R.N. Harris Elementary, in limbo. Frutig said her principal broke the news gently, but as a single mom of two, she is facing a brutal reality. Debt from a divorce and hefty car-maintenance bills have drained her reserves.

"On a teacher's salary, I don't have a savings account," Frutig said. "I have basically nothing to live on this summer." With a bachelor's degree and four years of experience, Frutig earns $35,201 annually.

Frutig hopes that when school starts in August, she will be one of the teachers who is rehired once the budget is finalized. Members of the school board also hope that as the budget process plays out before its June adoption, they can squeeze a little more money out of county commissioners to save some teacher jobs.

Emboldened by appeals from teachers, parents and students, the school board last week decided it would ask county commissioners to give the schools an additional $13 million to save teacher jobs and keep class sizes manageable. However, it's extremely unlikely the commissioners will increase school spending: Cuts are planned for nearly all other departments in order to close the county's $10.6 million funding gap. And commissioners have asked County Manager Mike Ruffin to cap any tax-rate hike for this year below 3 cents; the $13 million the schools are requesting would alone add 4.53 cents to the tax rate, Ruffin said.

"I think there are a lot of folks who certainly want to see help for schools, but we're hearing a lot about higher taxes, particularly for the elderly," Ruffin said.

"The $13 million [request] is too steep," said Ellen Reckhow, vice chairwoman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners. "But I am hopeful that we can meet them part way."

The district has publicly pondered other cost-saving measures, such as scraping 1 percent off the local supplements the county gives teachers in addition to their state salaries. And the state could also mandate that teachers take unpaid furlough days, as it did last year. Even those few unpaid days strain the finances of many teachers, most of whom earn a pittance considering the 10-plus hours many work each day.

For Hillside High School teacher Yolanda Whitted, furloughs can determine whether she pays her rent or her car loan. Or whether she can afford to send her 2-year-old to a reputable daycare or settle for a more affordable one where she doubted the caregiver's credentials. She says she's about half a paycheck away from homelessness—again.

A single mom of two boys ages 14 and 2, Whitted was homeless earlier this school year when she could no longer afford the high rent and utilities at her home north of downtown Durham. For a couple of weeks, she stayed at hotels (she got big discounts through websites) and then stayed with friends. On Christmas, she sobbed as she placed calls to nine homeless shelters, trying to find a place that would allow her and her children to stay together.

"I sat in the room and cried in front of my son," Whitted said. Her toddler, Jeremiah, watched her curiously, she recalled.

"It be OK," he told her. He laid his head on her chest and waited silently as she made more phone calls.

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