From now through Nov. 8 Orange County voters will be asked to vote “for” or “against” a $125 million bond – two bonds actually: $120 million for schools; $5 million for affordable housing.
A “yes” vote tells the county commissioners that voters support raising taxes to fix schools. I’ll be voting “no” because I believe commissioners, not voters, should be accountable for important financial decisions – especially debt and tax increases.
At face value, fixing schools seems basic, but for me, the bond raises many questions. I grew up in West Hillsborough and recently moved back home to raise my family in a community that I love. Schools are important to us, but when we unpack the bond information, we discover unsettling discrepancies.
School leaders report a backlog of $330 million worth of repairs and renovations in the county’s 32 aging schools. Yet the bond only provides $120 million. What about the rest?
Then I looked closer, Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) plans to use their portion of the bond ($73 million) to renovate two buildings: Chapel Hill High and the Lincoln Center. The other CHCCS schools will rely on band-aid fixes for the foreseeable future. Interim Superintendent Causby reported that this bond is only the first in a series but hasn’t shared the bigger plan (See http://nando.com/472). As a voter, I’d like a better understanding of when all of our schools will be fixed and how the county is going to pay for it. What lies ahead? More maintenance delays? More bonds? More debate? More taxes?
Until now, I’ve not questioned the county’s generous funding for schools. I always assumed our school buildings were being maintained. I can’t see giving more money to a process that created a $330 million maintenance problem in the first place. If the school funding policies aren’t working, shouldn’t leaders fix that first? That way, voters can be assured that all of Orange County’s schools will be taken care of in a timely manner.
I wonder why commissioners are asking the voters at all? Many capital projects, such as Northside Elementary and the Hillsborough Campus and Courthouse renovation, were funded without asking voters. Looking forward, the new jail, Carrboro Library, and county office and park renovations will be funded without asking voters. The bonds ask voters about a small part of the capital plan – while many projects move forward without a whisper about ballots or taxes.
If the confusion around school funding isn’t enough, why did the commissioners tag on a separate bond for affordable housing? While the county struggles with “affordable housing,” our low- and moderate-income workforce is moving to Mebane and Chatham for better jobs, good schools and affordable living. These families have opted for “opportunity” in the form of jobs and economic growth as the path to affordability – which in turn is keeping housing prices and taxes in check.
I value education, schools and affordability, and it will take a lot more than a bond to address the issues that we face. That’s why I’m voting “no” on Nov. 8.
Aaron Butner lives in Hillsborough and works in Chapel Hill. His roots in Orange County go back to before the Revolutionary War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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