The saga continues at Durham Public Schools (DPS).

The district was thrown into chaos earlier this year when it incorrectly overpaid hundreds of employees and decided to correct the error by reducing employee pay to the correct levels.

The actions set off protests, walkouts, school closures, and the resignations of the district superintendent and chief finance officer.

Last week, DPS officials went before the Durham County Commissioners to ask for additional money to help resolve the ongoing pay dispute.

Interim Superintendent Catty Moore presented DPS budget priorities, including money to provide pay raises for classified staff.

Top Durham County budget official Keith Lane didn’t paint a pretty picture of the county’s financial situation, however. Lane said county expenditures have increased by $33 million while revenue has increased by only $19 million. So, looking for additional funding for DPS is going to be tough.

Last night, independent comptroller Kerry Crutchfield, who was hired after the salary issue and tasked with finding a way to figure out how to pay classified staff according to the new salary rules, recommended a minimum salary increase of 11 percent for all classified staff. And for those who fall below the newly mandated state minimum — even with the 11 percent increase — Crutchfield recommended additional increases. Crutchfield’s plan would cost $8 million.

So how does DPS resolve the ongoing mess? They can adopt Crutchfield’s plan. However, the Durham County Commissioners have the final word on the DPS budget. And they haven’t tipped their hand. It’s important to note that the crisis didn’t begin overnight. There have been some troubling signs along the way, which raise a few questions.

For example, from 2016 to 2023, DPS lost 2,010 students. At the same time, the district added more than 559 staff, including 206 teachers and 239 professional and uncertified staff. Some of the upsurge in staffing may be a result of the influx of Covid funding. However, that money is ending.

According to data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Durham Public Schools received approximately $190.5 million in Covid assistance since 2020. As of February 29, 2024, the district had spent $160.7 million and had a balance of $29.8 million in unspent funds, $11.5 million of which was encumbered. The district spent 49 percent of all funds on salaries. Of the $78.8 million that DPS spent on salaries, approximately $45.9 million was spent on bonus pay, which was not subject to retirement charges.

DPS is currently using its reserve fund to pay for salary increases until the end of the fiscal year. That balance was initially above $10 million. In mid-February, it was at about $4.5 million. Now it is certainly less than that figure. Considering current guidelines that recommend maintaining a fund balance of between 8 and 10 percent of revenues, is this action prudent?

How much money the walkouts and shutdowns really cost the district is also a legitimate question. According to the North Carolina statistical profile, DPS spent $256,797,767 for the 2022–23 academic year. If there are 180 days in a school year, the average daily cost to operate Durham Public Schools is $1,426,654. If the district were shut down for two days, the cost would be $2,853,309. For five days, the cost would be $7,133,270. These are only estimations and don’t include capital costs. They do, however, provide a reasonable estimate of the costs associated with school closures. One could easily argue that the costs of school closures were greater than the cost of the staff raises.

The unanswered questions are troubling, as is the difficulty in getting public information from DPS. The district has readily complied with some information requests but not others. For example, it took longer than three months to receive records in response to a request for teacher and employee salaries.

These developments underscore the need to improve the formulas that not only determine how much money school districts receive but also how that funding is distributed to schools. The current system is broken. It’s overly complicated, lacks transparency, hinders accountability, and limits local flexibility. These are all factors that contributed to the problems at DPS.

Of course, none of those factors can replace the importance of responsible budgeting and policymaking. A good school finance system needs them both. It’s another compelling reason why lawmakers must seriously consider major school finance reform in the coming months.