‘Big win for our children’: Durham budget will help schools increase teacher, staff pay

Durham County’s new budget will raise taxes to give the school district all but a tiny fraction of the over $27 million increase it had requested.

The Durham County commissioners’ vote Monday night was 4-1, with Commissioner Brenda Howerton voting no. She said the tax increase is too burdensome for seniors and low-income people.

“It’s too much to ask,” Howerton said.

But the majority said Durham needs strong schools to flourish.

“Our communities will be healthier and safer. Our quality of life will be better,” Commissioner Heidi Carter said. “And that’s the kind of thing that I think we should consider tax increases for.”

Commissioner Wendy Jacobs called the budget “a big win for our children, our teachers and school workers, our parents and our entire community.”

The budget more than doubles the $13 million increase County Manager Kimberly Sowell initially suggested in May, which would have required a more modest 3.25-cent tax-rate increase.

Instead, commissioners approved an increase of 4.65 cents for a new tax rate of 79.87 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

It will allow the school district to give raises across the board:

  • $8.9 million for increasing wages for classified staff, the group affected by this school year’s budget mistakes.

  • $4 million for teacher raises.

  • $1.3 million to restore master’s degree pay supplements.

  • $799,320 to partially fund extra pay for “hard-to-staff” jobs like those serving exceptional children.

  • The rest of the $27 million increase will be spent on state-legislated items, pre-K or pass through to charter schools.

That increases per-pupil spending to $5,368, a $718 increase, according to budget director Keith Lane.

Catty Moore, Interim Superintendent of Durham Schools, fields questions following her introduction at a press briefing on Wednesday, February 14, 2024 in Durham, N.C.
Catty Moore, Interim Superintendent of Durham Schools, fields questions following her introduction at a press briefing on Wednesday, February 14, 2024 in Durham, N.C.

Taxes will be pushed higher

The entire budget totals $966 million, and will also increase pay by at least 3% for the county’s 2,400 employees.

  • Separately, the city manager has requested a 3.85-cent tax rate hike, much of which will also go to increasing wages.

  • For a $400,000 house, the median sales price this year, the county increase adds $186 and the proposed city increase adds $154 a year to the tax bill, which would total $5,580. Check the impact on your property online.

Board of County Commissioners Chair Nida Allam and Vice Chair Nimasheena Burns said the state has chronically underfunded its public schools, producing the current crisis that has led workers to threaten resignations and strikes next school year if they were not given raises.

“When the state failed its residents, the county stepped up and delivered,” Allam said. “We are recognizing that education is the key to unlocking opportunities and building a brighter future for our youth.”

“The folks in Raleigh do not care,” Burns added.

But the extra local spending has raised concerns.

“Will my children in Durham be in any better position next year than they are today?” Howerton asked last week. “What will be the outcomes?

Burns was more blunt.

“I have no hope for Black children in Durham Public Schools,” Burns said during the same budget work session.

Burns said Monday night the school board has lost the community’s trust with the financial mismanagement that led to the superintendent’s and finance director’s resignations in January.

“I need y’all to do to them what you did to us and put their a---s out of office,” Burns said.

Burns and Howerton were not re-elected in the spring primary and will leave office in December.

The Durham County Board of Commissioners, from left: Heidi Carter, Nimasheena Burns, Nida Allam, Brenda Howerton and Wendy Jacobs.
The Durham County Board of Commissioners, from left: Heidi Carter, Nimasheena Burns, Nida Allam, Brenda Howerton and Wendy Jacobs.

School workers have applied pressure

The Durham Association of Educators joined the school board and Interim Superintendent Catty Moore in the push for more money, delivering over 1,000 handwritten letters to county commissioners last week.

DAE President Symone Kiddoo told The News & Obsever the budget reflects what educators need “to be able to stay in this profession.”

“We just feel really seen by the decision makers in this county,” she said after the vote.

The contingent from DAE gave several lengthy standing ovations, then left after the vote to joyously march to a bar on the opposite side of downtown.

Board of Education Chair Bettina Umstead, in a news conference late Monday night, said it’s been a challenging year for everyone.

“The majority of this budget is going towards salaries. So I hope that folks here know that we value them and we want you to stay with our public schools,” Umstead said.

Impact on future budgets

But county leaders said they worry about the ballooning school budget’s effect on future budgets.

“We have consistently done this every single year, and the board that comes after us is about to inherit this horrible, horrible problem that we’re laying at their feet,” Burns said last week.

Pay increases aren’t typically withdrawn, so the 14% larger schools budget will be the base off of which leaders work next year. Plus, the county tax office will reevaluate properties next year, driving property values higher. Jacobs said it was “unsustainable.”

“This makes us extremely nervous because we’re starting in a hole,” Deputy County Manager Claudia Hagar has said about next year.

The school spending is not just coming from the tax increase.

In what Carter described as an act of “fiscal wizardry,” the county will deploy $2.7 million from reserves and $6 million of the federal money received under the American Rescue Plan Act, Lane said last week.

The budget fully funds all but about half of the school’s $1.4 million request for “hard-to-staff” positions, which was added at the last minute. Sowell said she will soon meet with Moore to discuss cost-cutting measures.

“It is my hope that we would help them find that,” Sowell said of the remaining $600,000 or so.

Moore said she felt confident that was possible.