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‘We need your help’: Speakers urge more county funding for Durham schools

The Durham County commissioners’ chambers on Tuesday evening was a sea of red. 

Nearly everyone in the audience wore a Durham Association of Educators T-shirt with the bull logo and white lettering. Rustling posters, some printed and others handmade, urged support for the schools, with messages such as “Durham’s schools need Durham’s help” and “Fund the schools, Durham students deserve better.” Those entering late joined the row of people standing in the back; there was no more space to sit. 

For the next two and a half hours, nearly all the 55 speakers — current and former DPS educators, parents, interpreters, occupational therapists, and cafeteria workers — shared one plea: fully fund the DPS school board’s budget request of $27.4 million. 

Durham County Manager Kimberly Sowell has proposed a more modest increase of $13 million in funding for local schools, $14 million short of what the school system requested. The proposed budget would result in a 3.25 cent tax rate increase, raising the countywide tax rate to 78.47 cents per $100 of property valuation.

“We need your help. We need to fully fund our public schools. We are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated,” Quenton Headen, instructional assistant at Riverside High School, said to cheers and applause. “I come to you with my heart pouring out, asking and pleading with you to please save our school system.” 

Speakers named a wide range of reasons to expand the school system budget. Deteriorating buildings. The need for pay raises. Support staff and teachers quitting at alarming rates. 

Several school system employees expressed frustration about working part-time jobs to support themselves. Haley Davidson, a science teacher at Brogden Middle, explained how her two part- time jobs outside of school impact her students. 

“It’s the hardest for my students, having them ask me if I’m going to their game after school or their band concert, and having to say, ‘No, I have to go to my second job’ and watching their faces drop,” Davidson said. “[Our students] are wildly aware of the situation their teachers are in.” 

Other teachers and classified staff said their salaries are not enough to make a living, and that colleagues have left for other counties that pay better. 

“These high-quality educators found their way in Durham and I wanted to do the same but it gets harder and harder,” said Ananda Ghosh, Durham resident, DPS graduate, and 10-year DPS educator. 

Insufficient salaries have encouraged turnover, several speakers said.

“I’m tired of seeing my co-workers burnout and leave,” said Daniel Kemp, a teacher at Riverside High School. “The constant turnover creates a challenging environment for both staff and students.” 

Elizabeth Jones, a DPS parent and teacher, added, “I know families whose children haven’t been taught by a certified teacher for two years.” 

Parents have health and safety concerns, too. “Some of our classrooms are better suited for growing mold than growing children,” one parent said. “My son’s school was without a functioning HVAC for over a month in 90 degree weather,” said another. 

A few speakers condemned the school system’s budget allocation, questioning the decision to build a costly new Durham School of the Arts campus, instead of renovating the current one. 

Durham homeowners emphasized that they would gladly accept a raise in taxes in order to fully fund the schools. “I am begging you to raise my taxes,” said Katherine Goldstein, homeowner and DPS parent of three. 

“This is the bluest county in North Carolina,” Goldstein added. “We have voted for many of you due to your stated commitment to our public schools.” 

While the majority of the public hearing consisted of school system budget requests, three representatives from the sheriff’s office also requested increased funding for protective vests. 

The county commissioners have scheduled several budget work sessions and are expected to vote on final budget approval on June 10. 

Jianna Choi