Chapel Hill: Opinion

Bonnie Hauser: School needs bigger than the ballot

Bonnie Hauser
Bonnie Hauser contributed

Orange County’s two school systems want money – a lot of it.

Over the years, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County school districts have been deferring basic maintenance of their aging schools. Black mold, loss of heat and other issues have disrupted classes and morale, but repairs stayed on a back burner, until now. Last year, given the option of a bond referendum, schools suddenly needed $300 million.

The school systems’ wish list goes beyond basic maintenance. Each district threw in multi-million dollar upgrades to district offices and added capacity to selected schools. It’s nearly impossible to separate “needs” from “wants” or to tell when the money is needed. It looks like a fiscal crisis because there’s no real plan.

For the past year, commissioners have been discussing a bond referendum, where voters would authorize the county to assume more debt. If approved, voters agree to pay higher property taxes to cover the increased loan payments. The latest estimates assume a 5 percent tax increase to cover a $125 million increase in debt.

Last week it all changed. The commissioners decided to get better plans from the schools. A change in statute last year requires the referendum to wait until 2016, an even-year ballot when countywide elections are held. That gives the commissioners a lot more time to sort through complicated school and capital planning issues.

If the referendum goes forward, voters will have the choice to vote for or against funding specific items: schools, affordable housing, and/or other popular topics. Voters won’t have a say on offices, parks and other projects that are already in the county’s capital plan. In other words, voters who’d prefer that commissioners reshuffle projects or spending to free up funds for schools will have to vote “no.”

The referendum has little to do with schools or school funding. Commissioners can increase debt and taxes without asking voters. Northside Elementary, the Culbreth science wing, and the county’s office campus in Hillsborough were all funded without voter approval.

At the heart of the issue is who should make the call. A “yes” vote means voters want more debt and higher taxes for schools and other ballot items. A “no” vote throws the ball back to the commissioners to decide how to best balance the needs of our schools, the county and our local economy. Hopefully voters will consider who is best prepared to make decisions about county finances, including how spending and tax increases will affect economic development, the upcoming property revaluation and other county priorities.

The referendum will delay school repairs by at least two more years, and schools will fall further into disrepair. During the same time, projects for county offices, parks and other projects will continue to move forward, leaving even less money for essential school repairs. The commissioners have an opportunity to instead delay the referendum, and focus on funding school repairs now!

Schools need money. The commissioners have the option to focus the debate on a tax ballot – or start a serious conversation about school funding and other fiscal challenges facing the county.

Bonnie Hauser lives in rural Orange County.