One productive law passed by the North Carolina legislature this year requires high schools to teach a course in financial literacy. Teens will learn about budgeting and saving, how to manage credit and debts, the costs involved with home ownership, etc. Hopefully, that will make them better stewards of their money when they take on the responsibilities that come with adulthood.
High schoolers aren’t the only ones who would benefit from this class, though. The county’s two school boards and the Board of County Commissioners could use a refresher course on how to manage the taxpayers’ money.
Our school systems are in a financial mess. You don’t have to turn to critics to hear that. The schools’ most ardent advocates, starting with the administrations and school boards, have declared a crisis.
According to those in charge, the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools need a $330 million capital infusion to fix everything that’s gone wrong in the past and put in place everything needed to be right for the foreseeable future.
Now, a third of a billion dollars is a lot of money even for a wealthy county like Orange. It’s over three times the annual budget for the schools, and more than twice what Orange County allocated from its five year capital investment plan.
Why so much money? Some would be spent to expand capacity at a number of schools to alleviate the need to build a new school. Some would be spent on school security, a heightened need on our open campuses.
However a lot of the money would go to repairing old schools that have deteriorated over the years. The school systems have deferred important maintenance issues, opting instead to fund operations. So leaky roofs spawned water and mold damage. Electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems haven’t been updated. In some areas, infrastructure isn’t functioning reliably, which can be unsafe, unsanitary or at the very least create conditions unconducive to productive learning.
School officials, and the county commissioners who fund them, would argue that, despite receiving some of the highest per pupil funding in the state, there just isn’t enough money every year to take care of everything, and they had no choice but to put off matters that weren’t an immediate issue.
But of course they had a choice. They chose to focus on the short term over long term needs. The consequences of those choices mean more more money now.
Businesses can’t survive without maintaining the plant in which its goods are made. Homeowners know that ignoring structural problems will reduce the value of their property. But in those cases, it’s their money at stake. For elected officials, the consequences of mismanagement fall on the taxpayers. So the county is proposing to ask voters to approve a $125 million bond issue to begin addressing the conditions. That will increase taxes for Orange County property owners by almost five percent.
That leaves us in a real quandry. Many of these needs are real, and more delay will only compound the problems. But providing this bailout won’t change the budgeting behavior that got us here in the first place. If we don’t change the way we do business, we’ll be looking at another big bond down the road.
To earn voter support, the county commissioners need to start insisting now that every annual budget allocates adequate maintenance spending. Yes, hard choices will have to be made. But if they aren’t, as any high school history student can tell you, history will repeat itself.
Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a small business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org