School and County Leaders Consider $100M Bond Referendum

By Elizabeth Friend Posted September 27, 2013 at 12:50 am

CHAPEL HILL- Years of deferred maintenance are taking a toll on local schools, leaving county and school officials scrambling to figure out how to foot the bill.

“We have to have a different communication with the citizens. We cannot even afford this. We don’t have enough money to do this,” said Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Vice-Chair Jamezetta Bedford, speaking Thursday at a joint meeting of school board members and county commissioners. “The idea that we want new things and we want this new park or whatever, when we can’t afford to maintain what we already have is very worrisome.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school budget allocates $20 million in the next decade to repair aging facilities, but a recent evaluation of the district’s oldest schools school revealed that repairing or replacing those facilities could cost as much as $170 million.

Orange County School administrators are still in the process of inspecting that district’s schools. Initial estimates for renovation range between $20 million and $68 million, but school officials say those numbers are likely to rise as many of the county’s oldest schools are in the Orange County system.

Members of the two school boards and county commissioners came together Thursday to discuss a potential bond package to take to voters, possibly as early as November of 2014.

County commissioners are considering a $100 million dollar bond referendum to pay for a new county jail and a fifth middle school for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system, but that plan doesn’t yet include any projects to repair aging schools.

And with the jail and the middle school estimated to cost about $76 million, that leaves just $24 million to address what school officials say is a $230 million dollar problem.

County leaders hope to break ground on a new jail in the next four years, but Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board Chair Michelle Brownstein said the school systems can’t wait that long.

“My anticipation is that as more details come out about both Orange County schools and Chapel Hill schools, about the level of need at those schools, there’s going to be a greater sense of urgency,” said Brownstein. “There’s going to need to be evidence that we’re coming up with a plan. I don’t think it is reasonable to think that we’re going to be able to wait until 2016 to address our county’s school needs.”

The need for a new jail is also pressing, not only because the county jail is consistently overcrowded, but because the board recently signed a land lease with the state that mandates the county start construction within five years. Board of Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs said failure to do so would invalidate the lease.

“If we haven’t done what we need to by that time then we’re just out of luck,” said Jacobs.

Nonetheless, County Manager Mike Talbert warned commissioners their options may be limited.

“Right now, outstanding debt is $190 million dollars. You’re looking at proposals that would nearly double that in a fairly short period of time. There are going to be limitations,” said Talbert. “Our debt has to grow in proportion to our budget and to our population. There are very much limits on what we can do.”

Veteran Orange County school board member and former county commissioner Stephen Halkiotis said he’s worked on three bond referendums over the years. He told the assembled leaders not to get too worried this early in the process.

“It always starts this way, so don’t get flabbergasted, don’t get upset,” said Halkiotis. “The first reach is real high. Then you realize you can only get certain fruit from the tree. Then you get real practical.”

Commissioners will discuss the feasibility of a possible bond package at their October 8 work session.

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