Schools ask Orange County for $6.8 million budget increase

tgrubb@newsobserver.comMay 2, 2014 

— The county’s two school boards told the Orange County Board of Commissioners Tuesday they plan to ask for $6.8 million more in next year’s budgets.

If the commissioners approve the request, it could add at least four cents per $100 in property value to the county’s 85.8-cent tax rate. A penny tax generates about $1.6 million for the county.

A four-cent increase would add $120 to the property tax bill for a home valued at $300,000.

The Orange County Schools would see its $25 million budget grow to $27.9 million. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools budget – now $40 million – would grow to $43.9 million.

The city schools also received roughly $27 million this year from a city school district tax. The commissioners approved a two-cent increase in that tax last year to 20.84 cents per $100 in property value.

County residents do not pay a school tax.

Todd LoFrese, the CHCCS district’s assistant superintendent for support services, said the city schools budget is challenged by steady student enrollment growth, depleted savings, rising costs and the possibility of paying for teacher raises if the state doesn’t provide them in its final budget.

Parents, principals and teachers are zeroing in on ways to deal with the budget situation, city schools Superintendent Tom Forcella said. The school board recently identified roughly $821,000 in proposed cuts to central office staff, gifted education specialists and service learning coordinators.

“In all of that, we really tried to stay true to our vision as a school district,” he said. “We don’t want the budget to be a reason to hold you back from doing the kinds of things that are really benefiting children.”

The county has the same issues, said Pam Jones, the district’s interim auxiliary services director. Other budget priorities include offering all students a free breakfast and hiring more social workers and academic specialists, she said.

Another looming financial challenge is $330 million in needed building repairs and renovations and new schools for both districts. The commissioners have talked about seeking voter approval for a $100 million-plus bond in the next few years to pay for the most pressing issues.

If the county seeks a bond for the full amount, the annual payments would be roughly $20 million for about 17 years, county chief financial officer Clarence Grier said. That works out to about 12.5 cents on the property tax rate, he said.

A $100 million bond would cost taxpayers roughly $6.7 million for 15 years, or roughly four cents on the tax rate.

LoFrese said the county could delay paying $57.6 million for a new elementary school and high school addition if it starts renovations and upgrades now. The changes could increase enrollment in existing schools by 555 elementary students and 105 high school students, he said.

The state has estimated 97 new city school students next year, LoFrese said. The county learned it could see another 197 students next year, surpassing its initial forecast of 75 students, county schools Superintendent Gerri Martin said. Many more rural students also are living in poverty, Jones said.

The state legislature’s drive in recent years to expand charter schools and give them access to more public school dollars is one of the biggest threats to local school budgets, officials said. Grier said the county has budgeted in the past for about 471 charter school students, but that number is going up.

County school board Vice Chairman Stephen Halkiotis said he would sleep well knowing the commissioners support local students.

“For without you, we are lost, we are sunk. Our children will not have a chance because of the moronic behavior in the legislature and the bunch of people over there who are acting like idiots,” he said.

 

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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