Mark Zimmerman’s column last Sunday (“Don’t Put Off What You Should Pay for Today”), which criticizes both the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County school boards for outlining bond requests to pay for capital improvements in their respective districts, is missing a major factor: Context. In addition, it is also incorrect on a couple of major points.
First, Mr. Zimmerman asserts that the “school systems have deferred important maintenance issues, opting instead to fund operations.” In point of fact, however, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has never moved so much as one cent from its Capital Improvement Budget to its Operating Budget.
Second, Mr. Zimmerman claims that the boards “chose to focus on the short-term over long-term needs.” For one thing, we do not consider educating a child a “short-term” investment. But this statement is also incorrect: Teacher salaries are set according to a schedule fixed by the state, and are funded by the state. (To be competitive, each district must provide a supplement on top of that with its own local funds). According to North Carolina State Board of Education policy, we are not permitted to touch the state’s earmarked salary funds and “re-allocate” them toward capital improvements, as Mr. Zimmerman suggests we’re errant in failing to do. If we followed his advice, we’d break state board policy.
What Mr. Zimmerman gets right is the fact that our schools have dwindling capital improvement funding. This is not because the boards are mismanaging their funds. Here are the key external factors that explain the funding problems we face:
▪ Our district has seen a reduction in our county allocated 10-year CIP budget of $10 million since 2008, mostly due to the after-effects of the Great Recession. If the quarter-cent sales tax increase had not been approved, this would have been a $20 million reduction.
▪ There used to be a Public School Building Fund to which the state allocated funds, but that was eliminated in 2009.
▪ The state has redirected lottery proceeds from capital projects to operational expenses in the last three budget cycles.
Mr. Zimmerman’s column also cites the boards’ $330 million bond requests without explaining what that request means. While the sum total of the capital improvement needs in the two districts is indeed $330 million, the total amount of bond requests in 2016 is not expected to exceed $125 million, which would be split per the discretion of the Orange County commissioners between the two school districts. If this sum is approved, each of our districts will face the challenge of trying to stretch those bond dollars to meet their capital improvement needs. Making those decisions will be challenging for both districts.
Another important point about our bond request is that many of those needs our district has identified – such as campus safety (specifically closing open campuses), bringing buildings up to code, and work on buildings that are more than 50 years old – fall outside of our normal Capital Improvement Process.
Finally, our district has strong a strong shared value that there is a direct link between fiscal responsibility and sustainability. We can proudly state that we are among the finest in the nation when it comes to spending our capital dollars wisely:
▪ Our newest school, Northside Elementary, was granted LEED Platinum status in 2014.
▪ With help from our county commissioners, we were able to build the Alice Gordon Science Center, which increased capacity, provided appropriate and advanced educational science facilities, and addressed school safety and security needs.
▪ This spring, our district received the 2015 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools District Sustainability Award, one of 14 school districts in the entire nation to receive that distinction.
When the voters in Orange County decide whether to support a bond in 2016, they should feel confident that not only are they backed by the AAA-rated county credit rating, but that Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools works tirelessly to be good stewards of our education dollars.
Andrew Davidson is the vice chairman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education.
Mark Zimmerman responds: As Mr. Davidson points out, our schools need a lot of money to put them back into shape. I only hope that if voters approve this bond, the boards of education and the county commissioners will find a way to better maintain the resulting new and renovated infrastructure so it doesn't deteriorate over time back to its troubled current state. Students, teachers, parents and taxpayers will appreciate ongoing preservation of the investment in our school facilities.