State Funding Cuts Spark Tension

By Danny Hooley Posted June 8, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Educators and school administrators all across North Carolina are anxious about the State House budget that’s due this week.

And those in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system are certainly no exceptions.

The State Senate budget that was proposed last week has nerves on edge already, as seen in recent discussions between the district’s Board of Education and the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

“I want to encourage you all to continue to do what you’ve done before in terms of continuing to support public education,” said CHCCS Board of Education member Michelle Brownstein, speaking to the Orange County Board of Commissioners last Thursday night.

“And also, to be as creative as you can, in thinking outside the box about how you can do this, because the implications of this are going to be beyond our school system. I mean, I’m even personally looking at jobs to move my family out of the state.”

Her frank admission that even she was considering leaving North Carolina, in a time of harsh school funding cuts from the state, was made during a plea for the best school funding the county could possibly muster.

Brownstein was accompanied by fellow Board of Education member Mike Kelley.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Board of Education were grappling with the future of the Mandarin dual language program. As soon as they were finished talking to Commissioners, Brownstein and Kelley would drive back to Chapel Hill High School and report to fellow board members.

Kelley and Brownstein were third in line to make their case to Commissioners, after Durham Technical Community College and Orange County Schools.

Brownstein told Commissioners she sympathized with the tough spot they were in – having to make decisions before knowing how badly the approved state budget would slash school funding.

She pointed out that the Board of Education made its $3.8 million request based on Governor Pat McCrory’s proposed budget – far in advance of knowing what the North Carolina Senate would propose last week.

Under that proposal, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools would take a $3.6 million hit, on top of a $2.7-million shortfall. And the school system would lose 57 teacher assistants.

State House Speaker Thom Tillis has indicated that the House budget, due this week, would not cut as many teacher assistants statewide as the Senate’s budget, but he hasn’t elaborated.

“It’s not going to be rosier than what the Senate’s done,” said Brownstein. “We’d be fooling ourselves if we think that it is. What we did is to give you our best estimate before we even knew how horrific they were going to be. And they’re even worse.”

She told Commissioners that the CHCCS budget request was not an expansion – it was simply to maintain the status quo.

Mike Kelley made a plea based on traditional Orange County values.

“State government has reduced taxes for our community,” said Mike Kelly. “And we can choose to spend our own money in a way that is consistent with our values, by raising taxes to support schools, and support education of the 20,000 children in the public school system, and other services that are going to be impacted. And I would encourage you to do that.”

Commissioners were not unsympathetic. Chair Barry Jacobs said that while the county can fill holes, it can’t fill craters. He also suggested that in light of what state government is doing, it may be time to re-assess local tax policies.

But Interim County Manager Michael Talbert said it would be very hard to fill the crater being dug by the General Assembly.

“It’s a double whammy,” said Talbert. “The Senate balanced their budget by eliminating positions, and by moving that money, from taking it from positions to teacher raises. So if our board is going to make that whole, you’re talking a substantial tax increase, well over $300 per pupil, if, in fact, the House comes though with a budget that’s a similar nature.”

Back in April, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education voted to request $3.8 million from the county.

That was after Superintendent Tom Forcella had recommended a budget request of $2.8 million. About half of the $900,000 difference would have gone to cutting gifted specialists in schools.

On Thursday night, Commissioners Mark Dorosin and Earl McKee said they wanted to know why they hadn’t seen a list of CHCCS priorities.

And McKee had this to say about the Board of Education’s funding-request methods this year.

“I’m a bit disappointed that the Board [of Education] did not make clear why they did not follow the superintendent’s recommendation, and instead, asked for a higher level of funding” said McKee, “knowing that the county is not flush, and knowing that the county, in the time that I’ve been on the Board [of Commissioners] has not approved full funding requests.”

Jacobs said he felt like the Board of Education had done a little game-playing this time around, which may end up leaving parents in Chapel Hill and Carrboro with the impression that the county had failed to come up with $6 million for schools.

“They’re going to feel like they were cheated,” said Jacobs. “And they were led to that belief by their school board.”

Afterward, Brownstein and Kelly joined the Board of Education meeting in Chapel Hill at its tail end, after about three hours had been spent there with anxious parents discussing the Mandarin dual language issue.

That’s when Board members received a bleak summary of the Commissioners’ discussion.

“I can’t really make a comment about this discussion,” Brownstein told her fellow Board members. “I feel kind of – no pun intended – shell-shocked. This is going to be an abysmal budget. Period. End of story.”

The Orange County Board of Commissioners adopts its budget on June 17.

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