Reductions in state funding have forced school districts across the state to cut millions from their budgets. Durham Public Schools is planning to cut more than 90 positions at the end of the month. But parents, employees and activists are questioning the district’s decision to cut employees closer to the classroom, while leaving in place administrative positions.
Jessica Simo suspected something was amiss with her son when she entered him in kindergarten in Durham Public Schools. Her pediatrician suggested he may be on the autism spectrum. But Simo says it took a year to get a positive autism diagnosis, in part because school therapists failed to see the signs.
"I can assure that those teachers and therapists working with him did not have the knowledge that they needed to understand that he had autism spectrum disorder, and they still struggle with his behavior," Simo told the Durham school board.
She spoke Monday night during a public hearing on the district’s proposed budget cuts. Simo was one of several parents who urged the board not to cut its only autism specialist.
"This is not a position that we as a district can afford to eliminate. And indeed the district needs to grow the position," said Shelagh Kenny, another parent of a child with autism.
The autism specialist is one of 91 positions Durham has put on the chopping block. District officials say the main reason they have to cut back is that since 2008, the state has provided less and less funding for teachers, teacher assistants and administrators. The district needs $15 million in order to fill a budget gap for next school year. In the past, the district has pulled from its fund balance, or savings, to cover positions no longer funded by the state. Now that fund balance has run down to less than a third of what auditors recommend for a district of Durham's size.
"This is what this budget reflects," Board member Natalie Beyer said. "We’ve been able to protect and protect and dig into our piggy bank, and our piggy bank has run dry."
But some are questioning where cuts are being made. Alex Modestou is a data analyst with an education policy nonprofit, but says he was speaking as a private citizen. He told the board he thinks they’re cutting the wrong positions.
"The bulk of the centralized cuts come from sites that have a direct educational impact," he said.
He notes the district plans to ax a successful teacher mentoring program, dozens of teacher assistants and the autism specialist while leaving in place administrative positions and many office assistants.
"It’s true what they’re saying that we probably need more money to support our students," Modestou said in an interview after the meeting. "I just worry that if we don’t also look at making sure we spend the money in the best ways possible, then we’re doing a disservice to our kids."
Two representatives from the Durham Association of Educators expressed similar concerns. But Durham Superintendent Bert L’Homme said the district did consider carefully when making its proposed cuts.
"It was always done in terms of the function, and the need and the ability to continue the service even after those 91 people are no longer working for us," L'Homme said.
L'Homme said the district tried to propose cuts in a way that protected classrooms as much as possible.
Still, board members say there’s no question the cuts will be felt in the classroom. Board member Minnie Forte-Brown urged the board to pass a resolution demanding more money from state lawmakers.
"Each year we keep getting crumbs," Forte-Brown said. "And you keep saying 'OK, we can stretch it with this.' And now we are asking two people to do the work of three."
The board plans to vote on the budget next week. In the meantime, board members expressed interest in asking for an extra $1 million from Durham County commissioners in order to save some of the services.