HILLSBOROUGH- School leaders say next year’s budget crunch is made worse by what they call “bad ideas” coming out of the General Assembly.
Officials from both the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school districts told county commissioners on Tuesday that they are deeply worried about the impact state bills will have on local school budgets and the quality of instruction.
Orange County Schools Superintendent Patrick Rhodes said he’s dismayed by much of the legislation working its way through the legislature.
“I have never seen this level of legislative activity associated with public schools,” said Rhodes. “Much of it is hurtful, much of it opposed by the North Carolina School Boards Association, much of it opposed by the principals association and the teachers association, because it truly is bad ideas.”
Those ideas include a wide variety of proposals, from expanding the reach of charter schools to introducing school voucher programs.
Rhodes said a push to open a virtual charter school could attract many local students who are currently home-schooled.
“If a virtual charter is established, we would be required to pay the charter school. It would be a for-profit charter and one of them is on the table to start up this fall,” said Rhodes. “Assume that half of those 667 students sign up for the virtual charter, that would be, across the two systems, a drop of a million in funding.”
While Governor Pat McCrory has stressed that his proposed budget will add teachers, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese said that comes at a cost, specifically the loss of teaching assistants.
“The governor’s proposed budget for our district equates to a $1.1 million dollar reduction for teacher assistants, that’s probably 35 or 36 positions,” LoFrese told commissioners.
Both school districts face rising enrollment coupled with state and federal budget cuts. Orange County School officials are asking the county for an additional $158 per pupil next year, while Chapel Hill-Carrboro school leaders are requesting nearly a $400 per-pupil increase.
Orange County Schools will dip into its reserves to the tune of just under $1 million, while Chapel Hill-Carrboro will allocate slightly more than $3 million to help cover the shortfall.
LoFrese said relying on the district’s fund balance is not sustainable.
“This budget is balanced based on the board continuing to assign fund balance at an increased level of $3.2 million dollars,” said LoFrese. “We believe this is probably the last year the board is going to be able to do this.”
Though they have yet to solve next year’s funding puzzle for either school system, commissioners including Mark Dorosin vowed to fight against any proposal that spends public money on private education.
“I am angry and I feel like we have to collectively raise our voices about what is going on here and pull the covers back on this,” said Dorosin. His words met with applause from the audience.
In other school board news, county commissioners on Thursday took a closer look at what it would take to build a new $5 million dollar science wing at Culbreth Middle School.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro school officials say adding the wing would increase student capacity enough to delay the construction of a fifth middle school for several years, but commissioners are still struggling to find a way to fund it that doesn’t put the county over its debt limit in the near future.
The board of commissioners will continue the conversation on the Culbreth science wing at a budget work session on May 9.
A public hearing on next year’s budget will be held May 23.