I’ve worked in public schools for nearly 50 years. I spent 27 of those as a school district superintendent. I have carried out work duties in all 100 North Carolina counties, and 48 states. That experience has taught me one very important lesson about money that transcends both generations and geography: School budgeting is a fierce process.
It is highly contested, routinely combative, characteristically competitive and customarily dividing. It will turn friends into rivals, and co-workers into ex-co-workers.
Budgeting is a game of lifeboat – in this game there is only room for SOME of the priorities. Real live people, passionate people, then get to argue over which priorities get saved and which get washed out to sea.
One of the harsh realities of living in such a diverse community is the very diverse set of expectations baked into the school district’s annual operating budget. Some stand on their roofs shouting on behalf of one program, others stand across the street shouting for a different program. While it would be nice to fund them all appropriately, we are limited by our reality – a reality that includes a finite supply of resources.
Many reading this column migrated here from areas in which the local school boards had taxing authority. That is not the case in North Carolina. Instead, we have a healthy system of checks and balances that includes an elected Board of County Commissioners.
This team is specifically elected to set the local tax rates and pay the bills. The largest expense in any county is the local school district. North Carolina has 100 counties and 115 public school districts. That means 15 city school districts exist in addition to the 100 county districts. We happen to reside in a county that has one of those city districts. Orange County is home to two school districts: Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools.
The county commissioners have a very difficult job. It is made even more complicated by having to provide equitable funding to two separate school districts – quite possibly with different funding priorities. This can be extremely challenging.
Each district will provide their budget requests to the commissioners in the spring. Our fiscal year begins July 1.
The commissioners will then decide how much of the proposed budgets will be funded. If it is less than 100 percent of the amount requested, they will likely be chastised by any portion of the community whose priority was tossed out of the boat. A difficult job indeed.
Having said all of that, I feel it is important to mention how impressed I have been with those working through the budget process in Orange County. The folks here get started early. Principals and department heads have already submitted their requests to the finance office. Many meetings have already occurred, including meetings between leadership of both school districts and meetings with the county commissioners.
In fact, I have never seen any school board and county commissioners work together as harmoniously as I have witnessed in my time here. These folks are deliberate, mutually supportive and dedicated to the success of our students. You can’t ask for anything more.
I realize things can get a little tense when final decisions are being made and programs, and even livelihoods, hang in the balance. However, I want the community to know there is not a stronger group of decision-makers anywhere in North Carolina. Both school boards, as well as the commissioners, the county manager and district leaders from Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools are well equipped, appropriately experienced and most definitely up for the challenge.
Please give them your full support as the process unfolds in the coming months. Thank you for the opportunity to serve.
Jim Causby is the interim superintendent of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.