Chapel Hill News

Bond referendum may be on 2016 ballot

County leaders may put a bond referendum worth up to $125 million on the ballot in 2016 to renovate schools and other buildings.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners met with the county’s two school boards Tuesday night. Commissioners Chairman Barry Jacobs said between the county and school systems, $500 million in renovations are needed, including $330 million for schools.

To begin meeting the need, the commissioners anticipate borrowing about a fifth of that, or between $100 million and $125 million that the county would pay back over 20 years.

Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for support services, said the 10 oldest schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School district need significant investment. He said there are safety and security issues as well as aging infrastructure.

In an interview, he said some older buildings lack connecting corridors and have separate buildings with doors that lead outside.

“When you have all those doors, it is very difficult to control who is in your building and who is not,” LoFrese said.

He also noted conflict with traffic between buses and parents dropping children off, and cracked sidewalks and steps that could create a safety hazard.

Pam Jones, interim deputy superintendent for the Orange County Schools, said her district has similar needs.

Taxes to increase

Clarence Grier, Orange County chief financial officer, said Orange County has a AAA rating that will keep interest rates low.

He said the impact of borrowing $100 million would be equivalent to 4 cents on the county’s current tax rate, or $120 on a $300,000 home. The impact of borrowing $125 million would equal 4.67 cents on the tax rate or $140 on a $300,000 home.

Grier also said the county would borrow the money in staggered amounts over four years to minimize the impact on the budget each year. Commissioners say that want to make a plan by August or December 2015.

But school district leaders expressed concern Tuesday that budgeting the bond referendum less than a year before a possible May or November 2016 public vote could hamper future projects. They asked the commissioners to begin planning earlier.

Based on enrollment growth projections, CHCCS will need another elementary school in 2019, LoFrese said.

But the district would prefer to renovate and add capacity to six existing schools instead, he said. To do that, it needs to start planning as early as possible.

“The problems are not going to go away unless we start to focus on our older schools,” he said.

The school board has requested $750,000 to get an early start. LoFrese said doing that could cut a year off of the two- to three-year window it takes to finish a project.

Jacobs said that might not be possible.

“I don’t know that we want to turn around and start budgeting things ahead the budgeting process when we’ve finally gotten everything together,” Jacobs said. “But if the superintendents can convince the (county) manager that’s what we need to do, I’m sure she’ll make a recommendation to us that way.”

If the voters approve the referendum, it would take 90 to 120 days to issue the actual bond.

“We just need to be clear to people that we're going to them to ask,” Jacobs said. “We’re going to go to people, and we’re going to say, ‘Are you with us? And if they say ‘yes,’ they’ll help us pay for it. That’s about as democratic a way to do it as I know.”