Orange County School Tax - Orange district school tax soundly defeated

Orange County School Tax - Orange district school tax soundly defeated

Staff WriterNovember 9, 2005 

Voters in the Orange County Schools district shot down an offer to pay higher taxes for local schools.

The would-be tax -- similar to one collected for decades in the neighboring Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools -- proved extremely unpopular to those who bothered to vote.

Nearly 80 percent of voters didn't want it, though only 15 percent of those eligible to vote -- registered voters living in the county school district -- turned out.

Despite the landslide defeat, Orange County Commissioner Moses Carey said the "issue of funding equity" with the county schools is not dead.

"I hope folks don't read the wrong message into the outcome of this election," Carey said. "There were a lot of mixed messages swirling around out there."

Voters may have taken a cue from the county school board.

For varying reasons, all board members declared the tax proposal "bad policy." Some members consider it unnecessary, while others would rather see the overall county property tax raised to give more money to the county school system.

The commissioners will stick with a pledge to root out any inequities in the way they fund the county schools and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools.

But they might see Tuesday's vote on the proposed tax as a signal that county school district residents aren't interested in higher taxes for better-funded schools.

That's exactly what Chairman Randy Copeland of the county school board is hoping.

"The citizens of rural Orange County have finally had their say," Copeland said. "The commissioners brought this to the table. Now the people have taken it off the table."

The commissioners, by state law, have to fund both the city and county school districts at an equal amount per student.

This year, both districts will get $2,800 per student -- $30.4 million for the larger Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, and $19.6 million for the Orange County Schools.

The city schools special tax, in place since the early 1900s, will give that district an additional $14 million this school year.

Though the build-up to Tuesday's tax referendum was relatively quiet, the vote was years in the making.

Though the commissioners' politically charged look into merging the city and county schools proved highly unpopular several years ago, they decided to keep exploring the idea of equity between the two systems.

The tax vote was an offer from commissioners to the county district residents to pay the same sort of schools tax Chapel Hill-Carrboro residents pay.

Carey said the referendum results weren't surprising because there were no "aggressive advocacy groups" attempting to sway voters.

And county school board member Al Hartkopf said that, despite the low turnout, the numbers probably reflected residents' opinions pretty well.

"By and large, people said, 'We're good,' " Hartkopf said. "Now let's get on with the tough business of running a school system."

WHAT'S NEXT: The Orange County commissioners -- who put the tax offer before voters -- may view the vote as a poll of sorts, indicating that county school district residents overwhelmingly oppose higher taxes for schools. No matter what, the commissioners will continue looking for any unfairness in the way they fund the Orange County Schools and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

Staff writer Patrick Winn can be reached at 932-8742 or pwinn@newsobserver.com.

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