Bonnie Hauser: A better path to school funding

06/03/2014 12:00 AM

02/15/2015 11:24 AM

It’s that time of year when elected officials decide school funding, budgets and taxes.

On May 22 and May 29, county commissioners held public hearings on the proposed 2014-15 budget – a budget that illustrates how county policies are routinely underfunding our schools while lower-priority county projects are approved and funded.

Consider the following:

• Chapel Hill/Carrboro (CHCCS) and Orange County (OCS) schools are in need of repair. Long-standing problems, such as leaky roofs and mold, interrupt learning and affect working conditions for teachers and students. Nevertheless, the county spent $1.5 million on a new commissioner meeting room last year and is spending millions to upgrade solid waste convenience centers, county offices and more.
• Funding for our schools is targeted at 48.1 percent of the county’s property taxes (plus the supplemental tax for CHCCS). This covers buildings (capital) and operating (education, teachers, material) expenses. While the policy made sense at one time, county staff and others have raised concerns that as spending increases for new schools and maintenance, there will be less money for teachers and education. This years budget raises the percent to 49.3 percent but that’s $4 million short and doesn’t include funds for urgently needed facilities repairs.
• Currently the two school districts use different budgeting and reporting formats, making it difficult to understand how education dollars are being spent. For example, reports masked inequities in funding for school resource officers between the two school districts.

The proposed budget does not include the $320 million that the schools estimate is needed for repairs and renovations. Leaders intend to bring that forward later in a voter referendum for bonds and a tax increase. In the meantime, urgently needed repairs will go untouched.

I am happy to see more money go to our schools but it’s not clear that a tax increase is the solution. Since parents are quick to ask for tax increase for schools, there’s been little scrutiny over how commissioners spend the 52 percent of funding that is not designated for education. Maybe more taxes should be allocated to schools.

There’s a better way. Before asking for higher taxes, it’s time to encourage our commissioners to take a closer look at overall spending and modernize the school funding policies. To start the conversation:

First: Immediately fund school needs and urgent building repairs without a tax increase. Monies can be found by eliminating or postponing non-essentials, or by drawing from reserves and tapping into existing debt capacity.

Second: Separate school capital from operating expenses, and fund capital (facilities and maintenance) based on need regardless of school district. This will ensure the integrity of the hundreds of millions of dollars of facilities that support our school systems. Ultimately school capital should be prioritized with county projects to avoid overspending on county projects at the expense of schools.

Third: Continue working to standardize financial reporting for our two school districts to improve transparency around the per-pupil funding.. This is not to suggest either merger or micromanaging educators, but to provide basic information around what’s being funded, and how it’s working.

Orange County needs to modernize its school funding policies to prepare for growth and changing conditions. If commissioners commit to fund schools in the short term, it will take pressure off the entire system. That will allow county and school leaders to work together to develop better plans and policies for the future

There is always the option to issue bonds and raise taxes, but these decisions should be made after taking a closer look at the needs and priorities of our schools and county government.

Bonnie Hauser lives in Orange County.

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