Orange hopefuls face school issues

Staff WriterApril 28, 2006 

Editor's note: This is the first of two stories on the race for the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

HILLSBOROUGH -- The Orange County Board of Commissioners is wrestling with how to fairly fund the county's two school systems. A UNC-Chapel Hill study last year showed students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district benefit from extra resources.

The county already funds each system on an equal per-pupil basis, but a special property tax in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district brings in an additional $14 million for schools there. Voters in the Orange County Schools district rejected creating a similar tax by a 4-to-1 margin in November.

Below, the candidates respond to one suggestion offered to narrow the gap: raising the county property tax and lowering the Chapel Hill-Carrboro tax.

Three of five seats are up. The winners of Tuesday's Democratic primary go on to the November election, which also features Republican Jamie Daniel.

FRED BATTLE, 63, a retired landscape superintendent, has served as president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP and on the city school board from 1985 to 1989.

BATTLE ON FUNDING EQUITY: "I think there's a need for equity, but it's how it's going to be implemented that is going to be the question. Is it fair for Chapel Hill, which has already voted [to have] the district tax since 1930, to have that somewhat eroded and taken away as compared to northern Orange, where they voted against it and still want a part of it? ... I would support equity, but I don't have a mechanism right now on how to do it."

ROBIN CUTSON, 49, has lobbied for wetland and watershed protection. She has a degree from Wake Forest School of Law, and political science and psychology degrees from Virginia Tech.

CUTSON ON FUNDING EQUITY: "I support increasing the per-pupil allocation accompanied by a reduction in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district tax.

"I would also work to ensure that a per-pupil increase, if possible, would not entail higher taxes or land valuations by examining the budget for any cost savings, and by actively pushing for increased economic development. Currently, 86.4 percent of our revenue to fund schools and other needs comes from homeowners and renters."

BETTY TOM PHELPS DAVIDSON, 46, runs a bed and breakfast on her farm and teaches biotechnology, biology and anatomy and physiology at two community colleges. She served on the county school board from 2002 to 2004, when she resigned over that system's handling of a bullying situation with her child.

DAVIDSON ON FUNDING EQUITY: "I will scrutinize the two school systems' budgets ... and fund each of them to the best of my ability without considering the presence of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools tax. Some folks [have said] ... the commissioners look at the district tax revenue, then they back down out of that, and then they decide what the per-pupil allocation is. I won't do that.

"I want schools as well-funded as our countywide tax revenues allow. We have many departmental needs in this county vying for our fiscal resources."

ARTIE FRANKLIN, 35, has spent most of his career in banking and finance. He's on the county Affordable Housing Advisory Board, Human Relations Commission and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA Council.

FRANKLIN ON FUNDING EQUITY: "We need to find a way to support [the school boards'] funding requests. And I personally like the district tax in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools District and think it's an education-dedicated tax.

"We need to figure out some way to increase the funding because the elected board is asking for it.

"Orange County Schools has never made a request to equalize funding between the Orange County Schools and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. So, I'm a little leery of the meaning of raising the ad valorem tax and lowering the special district tax."

ALICE GORDON, 68, a retired research psychologist, has been a commissioner since 1990. She is vice chairwoman of the regional Transportation Advisory Committee and Triangle Transit Authority Board of Trustees, and a founding member of the county Commission for the Environment. She has led the Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA Council and county Planning Board.

GORDON ON FUNDING EQUITY: "I'd be willing to consider it among several revenue options if there's a plan agreed to by the school board and the commissioners with specific goals.

"Any plan has to hold the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools harmless. In other words, it needs to help the Orange County Schools but not hurt the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools."

BARRY JACOBS, 55, a writer, is the caretaker at Moorefields, a wildlife refuge near Hillsborough. He has been a commissioner eight years and served on the Orange Water and Sewer Authority board and county Planning Board.

JACOBS ON FUNDING EQUITY: "I've advocated that before, and I still support it. Although it's easy to make promises, we have to operate within real fiscal constraints. So we may not be able to act as quickly as we would like.

"That's why I've made some proposals to fund outside the per-pupil ... in the areas of health and safety. That might free up some money for programs that's not currently available -- maybe more school nurses and social workers and school resources officers, all of which are essential to the function of the schools but should not maybe be exclusively the responsibility of the schools to fund."

MIKE NELSON, 42, is the director of governmental relations for the Conservation Council of North Carolina. He served as mayor of Carrboro from 1995 to 2005. He is the board chairman of Equality North Carolina, and is involved with the Carrboro Arts Committee and Orange County Democratic Party.

NELSON ON FUNDING EQUITY: "Yes, that proposal was made by Commissioner Alice Gordon. It's the best idea I've heard so far. I'm supportive of it.

"The bottom line for me is that I want to make sure that every child in Orange County gets the educational resources they need. I want to make sure that every child gets those resources regardless of which part of the county they live in, whether they are black, white or Latino, rich or poor."

Staff writer Cheryl Johnston Sadgrove can be reached at 932-2005 or

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