Durham struggles to keep schools afloat

May 28, 2009 2:34:10 PM PDT
Durham County school leaders met with county commissioners Thursday for a heated round of budget talks. The issue is a proposed $3 million reduction in school funding from the county. But, school board members came to the meeting asking for more: $1.6 million more.

"It may not be the county's responsibility, but if we want a quality school system, somebody's got to make up for it," offered School Board Chairman Minnie Forte-Brown.

Durham schools, like most districts statewide, are struggling to make up for state budget cuts. County budgets are already strained.

"This is a very adversarial process - one having to deal with what they get and the other having to decide what you're going to give them," explained County Manager Mike Ruffin.

No one doubts the need is great in Durham. About 50-percent of its students live in poverty and the district has a growing homeless and special needs population. Those are challenges that cost money as educators struggle to raise standardized test scores and graduation rates.

School leaders say more money could save hundreds of teaching jobs.

"We are looking at how attrition can help us with that effort. We're looking at how we can move people around. I think our HR officers have been sensitive in that process," said Forte-Brown.

Still, county commissioners say there are too many unanswered questions about how the school system spends its money. There are also questions about how much federal stimulus dollars could ease the county's budget burden.

That means the bottom line is balancing the books for the next fiscal year will likely take longer than expected.

"We're going to figure out something that works for everyone. What that will be we don't know, so there's some doubt about that. There will be a lot of discussions between the superintendent and me," said Ruffin.

Thursday was supposed to be the final meeting between the two boards, but now more are in the works.


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