Following less-than-expected education funding in the state budget
, the Durham County budget will give more funding to Durham Public Schools, but not as much as advocates say is needed to ensure teaching positions aren't cut.
The commissioners approved the $633.14 million budget
, including $134 million for Durham Public Schools, after Commissioner Heidi Carter, a former school board member, tried unsuccessfully to get her colleagues to add another 0.15 cents to the property tax rate to help cover shortfalls in state education funding. Education proponents, including members of the Durham Association of Educators, left the meeting following a unanimous vote of approval. The final budget calls for a 2.75-cent property tax rate increase.
With limited funds in the state budget, Carter said the school system has "nowhere else to go."
"I don’t think there's a question that every member of this board is committed to Durham Public Schools," Carter said. " … I think the question is not are we doing a lot. The question is, is there still a need in addition to everything we’re doing especially since the state is not ponying up to its responsibility?"
Funding for DPS in the 2017–18 budget represents an increase of just more than $6 million from the current fiscal year. The school system had asked for $140.41 million, including $1.5 million to support pre-K at the Whitted School, an increase of about $12.4 million from this year. While the county did agree to fund the Whitted School classrooms outside of the DPS budget, there’s still about a $4.9 million gap between what the school system wanted and what it got. Outside of the DPS budget, the county also allotted about $4.3 million for nurses and resource officers in Durham public schools.
“We don’t have unlimited resources,” said board chairwoman Wendy Jacobs. “And unless things change with redistricting and gerrymandering and our state legislature, we’re going to be dealing with this year after year.”
Originally, county manager Wendell Davis had proposed $132.7 million in funding for DPS, but the board decided to increase that allotment after receiving hundreds of emails supporting more funding.
The DPS budget had been crafted around projections that the state would call for an average raise for teachers of 5.5 percent. Instead, the average raise will be about 3.3 percent
. Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said that could save $600,000 to $1 million that can go toward other needs. Additionally, DPS won't have to divvy up the money with as many charter school students because the opening of Discovery Charter School in north Durham has been delayed, Jacobs said.
Nicholas Graben-Grace, with the Durham Association of Educators, says the increased allotment from the county plus savings from smaller-than-anticipated teachers raises will “almost certainly” cover twenty-four teaching positions that were at risk. But last week, the group learned a formula for calculating funding for academically gifted and ESL programs was being tweaked, resulting in about a $1 million loss for the system and jeopardizing about fifteen positions.
"We know that the real issue here is that our state legislature and the leadership there has underfunded our schools for years and years, but when that happens what we need is a county that will stand in the gap and protect our students from the pain of those cuts," Graben-Grace said before the meeting.
Davis had also proposed a three-cent property tax rate increase. "However, due to multiple refinancings of existing debt, resulting in lower annual and overall payments, along with lower interest rate estimates for future debt and slower planned expenditures," the county was able to lower the increase to 2.75 cents. One cent will go to DPS and 1.75 cents to the county's Capital Financing Fund.
But with the city of Durham raising property taxes
by 1.79 cents, residents will be seeing one of the largest increases “in a long time," Reckhow said. For a $180,000 home, the average for the area, that means annual tax bills will go from $2,341 to $2,424.
"If an untenable situation arises, we can look and see how we can help," Reckhow said. "... I hope you will trust our judgment at this point in time, and we will see if there is a real urgent need how it will be addressed."