With Cuts Possibly Looming, UNC Centers State Their Cases

Representatives from various UNC-Chapel Hill centers and institutes made presentations to the UNC Board of Governors Thursday in order to retain their state funding in the face of budget cuts – or just to remain alive.

Amidst a crowded room at the Spangler Center Thursday morning, the Board listened to speakers like Christi Hurt of the UNC Women’s Center, who spoke about having only one staffer who works directly with sexual assault victims.

“We truly do need a whole lot more,” she told Board Chair John Fennebresque (who asked, “Don’t you need a hundred?”). “The rest of the Women’s Center staff is trained to provide support, and we also do the work of the prevention efforts throughout the whole center…so the program itself isn’t isolated in one person, but she’s (the only one who is) distinctly trained to provide one-on-one advocacy support.”

The weeklong meetings arose after the state legislature paved the way for $15 million in cuts in last year’s budget.

Another group facing elimination is the Sonya Haynes Center for Black Culture. Director Joseph Jordan reminded the board that the center was created in 1988 from $9 million raised exclusively in private funds.

“It was created at the urging of concerned students, faculty, community and alumni as a center for the arts and cultures of African-Americans and as a site for campus and community service programming,” Jordan said. “In the 26 years since its creation, it has grown to become a major and unique resource for the university and the regional communities.”

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt reiterated that 51 percent of state funding has already been cut since 2009, which has prompted the university to become more aggressive in fundraising.

She said centers like the ones being discussed Thursday were crucial to those fundraising efforts.

“We’re getting ready to go to a multi-billion-dollar campaign – and one of the best ways you do that (is) to raise money for a center, not an office,” she told the Board. “The Stone Center is a vehicle for raising funds – and we are just in the process in developing that whole strategy, and they will be getting support, as will the Women’s Center…

“(These) are big draws for people that like to give to a named place.”

Groups under review may be terminated, lose state funding or could continue operating as it is. Thirty-four groups are under review at 11 UNC system universities.

Numerous students were also in attendance at Thursday’s meeting, carrying signs and wearing black tape over their mouths to protest the threat of funding cuts.


CHTC To Revamp Priority Budgeting Process

CHAPEL HILL- As the Chapel Hill Town Council looks ahead to this year’s budget battles, members say they want to revamp the priority budgeting process.

When the Town Council introduced priority-based budgeting last January it was heralded as a new tool to help match the town’s spending with community values. But a year later, most council members say they weren’t impressed with the results. Speaking at a work session Monday night,  Council member Jim Ward called the process frustrating.

“It’s been a huge commitment from the town staff to get us somewhere. I don’t see the progress,” said Ward. “I don’t see it impacting our decision-making process.”

Last year’s efforts to rank the town’s goals and programs led to dissatisfaction among some on the council, as high-profile programs like the public library appeared low on the priority list, due to confusion about terminology and the ranking procedure.

And though the Chapel Hill 2020 process helped define resident’s goals for the town, Council member George Cianciolo pointed out it offers little in the way of direction on how to pay for that vision or balance competing priorities.

“What is lacked was the discussion of consequences,” said Cianciolo. “It did say, ‘I want more affordable housing, I want more transit,’ but it didn’t weigh those balances, and I think that is the difficulty we’re faced with.”

Council members have been meeting with Margaret Henderson of the UNC School of Government to identify ways to improve the process. They say they want greater consistency and more transparency in the ranking process.

“I think the big failure of the process so far has been the real lack of understanding about how we got from one place to another,” said Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. “I don’t think any of us could clearly explain to anyone how that happened and we’ve got to fix that.”

Town Manager Roger Stancil said he and his staff have heard the Council’s frustrations loud and clear.

“It’s clear to us that the system we tried to create is not satisfying your interests,” said Stancil. “Part of it is simplifying and aligning the words we use so we’re not talking about things using different words. It’s got to be a process that you own and buy into or it is not worth the time.”

The Council will revisit the priority-based budgeting process at its planning retreat later this month.


CHCCS Board Eyes Teacher Turnover And Tough Budget Cuts

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board welcomed new and returning members on Thursday, but school officials are already eyeing tough budget challenges ahead.

Newly-elected school board member Andrew Davidson and returning members Michelle Brownstein and James Barrett took just a brief moment to celebrate after taking their oaths of office before the school board sat down to digest some sobering statistics.

Andrew Davidson takes the oath of office.

Andrew Davidson takes the oath of office.

Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese told the board the district faces a $3.3 million dollar shortfall next year.

“We’re using fund balance this year to balance our local budget,” said LoFrese. “We have used all of our available fund balance and we’ll need to either receive more funds to offset that or we’re going to need to look at reductions.”

This is the third year in a row the district has used reserve funds to balance the budget, but that money will not be available next year. LoFrese stressed that this shortfall comes after years of cumulative budget reductions.

“We think it is important to remind folks that this is not a single-year event. We have been living in tough times for several years,” said LoFrese. “We’ve made $8 million dollars worth of reductions over the last several years.”

Administrators struggled last budget season to make up for cuts to state funding that would have paid for 37 teachers and 25 teaching assistants. In total, state funding to the district was cut by $4.5 million dollars.

In the past five years, the General Assembly only approved a single 1.2 percent pay raise for educators. As a result, North Carolina now ranks 46 in the nation for teacher salaries.

CHCCS Human Resources Executive Director Arasi Adkins told the board this is affecting the district’s ability to recruit and retain quality teachers.

“The point is we’re going to continue to lose teachers to other states and other fields if North Carolina doesn’t do something to raise teacher pay across the board,” said Adkins.

The turnover rate for teachers in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district is now up to 14.47 percent, the highest it’s been in nine years. While more educators are looking to leave the system, student enrollment continues to grow.

“At the elementary level this year, we have 265 seats remaining with respect to SAPFO, 88 at the middle school level and 100 remaining seats at the high school level,” LoFrese told the board.

School officials anticipate opening new middle school in five year’s time, but some hope large-scale renovations to older facilities can increase capacity and delay the need for a new school.

The school board will revisit these issues next spring as part of the budget negotiation process.  You can read the district’s 2013 Opening of School Report here.


Local School Panel To Discuss Budget Cuts

CHAPEL HILL – A special panel from your Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will meet today at 4 p.m. to talk about budget cuts and teaching.  The panelists include Director of Student Equity, Graig Meyer, Former Teacher for East Chapel Hill High, Jennifer Colletti, and Assistant Superintendent for Support Services, Todd LoFrese.

The panel will discuss the budget and the effect that recent cuts could have on teaching and students.

Director of Student Equity, Graig Meyer, will be able to answer difficult questions on how the budget cuts are affecting affordability of college for students, and the impact that it has on the families.

As a former teacher, Jennifer Colletti can give insight on how the budget cuts affect teachers in the state and the future of teaching as a profession.

Assistant Superintendent, Todd LoFrese, can let you know which budget reductions are impacting the area the most and if any recent legislation causes concern for the school the system.

Tune in to 97.9 FM WCHL and click here to hear all the comments live Monday at 4:00 p.m.


CHCCS Board To Vote On New Budget Plan

CHAPEL HILL-Members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board hope to adopt a new budget Thursday night, despite the fact that the General Assembly’s spending plan is still up in the air.

School officials are looking to trim the local budget in anticipation of state-level cuts that could cost the district up to $1.3 million dollars of funding for teaching assistants.

The school board spent much of its last meeting re-evaluating spending priorities to make sure enough local funding is set aside to cover the budget shortfall.

But administrators are backing away from a plan to cut the number of gifted education specialists at each elementary, recommending that the district forgo hiring new middle school literacy coaches instead.

The legislature is still working out the details of next year’s state budget. If the state cuts prove to be more than anticipated, school officials say they will have to make do with one less teaching assistant at each of the district’s eleven elementary schools.

The board meets Thursday July 18 at 7:00 p.m. at the Lincoln Center on South Merritt Mill Road. Click here for the full agenda.


OC Parents Plead For School Funding: “I’ll Pay More”

HILLSBOROUGH- More than a hundred parents, teachers and children squeezed into Thursday’s public hearing on the county budget, while others spilled out into the hallway at the Department of Social Services, waiting for their chance to beg the board of commissioners to spend more on schools.

“We’re not asking you for more advantages for our children or more programs for our children,” said Mindy Morton, co-chair of the Smith Middle School Improvement Team. “We just want enough money so that we can keep it the way it is. So please make that a priority and fund our schools.”

Nearly three dozen speakers addressed the board, with most warning of dire consequences if Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools lose funding for teaching assistants.

Many acknowledged that the proposal to cut more than 4,000 teaching assistant positions statewide comes from state legislators, not county commissioners, but time and again the speakers said it’s up to the county to bridge the funding gap.

“If the state legislators de-fund thousands of teaching assistant positions, local school districts across North Carolina will be dealt a very raw deal,” said Julie Tucker, parent of a student at Grady Brown Elementary. “We cannot pass that raw deal on to our children. Not in Orange County.”

At issue is the county manager’s recommended budget for next year. While it covers the operational cost for both school systems and accounts for growth projections, it falls about $6 million dollars short of fully funding the requests put forward by the school boards.

The recommended budget does not include a property tax increase or an increase in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax, but several speakers said they would be willing to pay more.

“It is really important that we get what we need,” said Laura Pittman. “I’m a single parent and I’m willing to pay more. I’m willing to put more dollars in your coffers so I can have the education for my kids that they need.”

The board would need to raise the property tax rate by 5.5 cents per $100 of valuation to fully fund both school systems.

Commissioners made no comment at the public hearing, but at a work session just afterwards, they signaled they would be willing to invest in capital projects for each district in the next fiscal year, building a science wing for Culbreth Middle School and an auxiliary gym for Cedar Ridge High School.

A second public hearing on the budget will be held on 7 o’clock next Thursday at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road. The board will begin deliberations on the budget June 6.


CH Manager: Two-Cent Property Tax Rate Increase

CHAPEL HILL-  Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil’s recommended budget for next year calls for a two-cent property tax rate increase to cover transit budget shortfalls, increased library operating expenses and the transition of solid waste services to the Durham waste transfer station.

Stancil told the town council on Monday that none of this should come as any surprise.

“There’s nothing [the budget]  that we haven’t been talking about for a year,” said Stancil. “So there are no topics in here that would cause you to say ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’”

The proposed hike would bring Chapel Hill’s property tax rate to 51.4 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value. A two cent increase would generate a little less than $1.5 million in revenue for the town. Half of that would go to the general fund, while the other half is earmarked for the transit fund.

Chapel Hill Transit is facing increased operating expenses at a time when state and federal funds are being cut. On a local level, Chapel Hill Transit is jointly funded by Carrboro, Chapel Hill and UNC. Stancil says the partners are examining the long-term sustainability of the fare-free system.

“We are looking at a team to help us think at how to have a sustainable transit system, because our land use systems and everything else in this community are built upon a sustainable transit system,” said Stancil.

The 2013-2014 budget does include $100,000 for extra staffing to keep the library open an additional four hours each week. This brings the total number of library hours up to 58, still short of the 68 hours per week level that the library operated at prior to its expansion.

Stancil says the library will likely change its schedule to include the new hours in the fall, but some on the council including Jim Ward pushed for the changes to be implemented as soon as possible.

“We’ve heard an awful lot already about the travesty in some people’s minds of having this great library and it not being open at critical times during the week, and to let this play out another half a year just seems unnecessary,” said Ward.

The council will likely spend much of the next month hashing out the final details of next year’s spending plan. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for next Monday.


Development Goals Top Town Council’s List For Priority Budgeting

CHAPEL HILL- Chapel Hill leaders took their first stab on Wednesday at setting goals to guide the new priority budgeting process, but the experience left some town council members scratching their heads.

Business Management Director Ken Pennoyer told the town council that after four years of slow growth, or no growth, Chapel Hill has run out of short term solutions to long term budget problems. The answer, he said, lies in tailoring spending to support programs, not departments.

“The concept is to manage for the long term based on shared community vision, to prioritize the services that we provide so we can make sure the funds, in a time of scarce funds, are going to our highest priority services,” said Pennoyer.

To kick start the priority budgeting process, council members were asked to rank 25 broad policy goals. The resulting list will guide decisions about where to concentrate funding and where some cuts might be made.

But some felt the goals were too vague and amorphous.

“I think we need to know what these things mean, because I don’t know the difference between, for instance, ‘manages and mitigates factors that impact environmental quality,’ versus ‘promotes and regulates a clean, orderly and ecologically balanced community,’ versus ‘controls and abates threats to the environment,’” said council member Jim Ward. “That seems to me, at least superficially, to be three different ways of saying the same thing.”

Despite confusion over the wording of the policy goals, a clear pattern emerged from theballot process. Managing town growth ranks at the top of the list of council concerns. Three of the four development goals were ranked as high priorities, specifically, long-range planning, infrastructure investment and economic development. . By contrast, only one of the four environmental protection goals made the cut.

Traffic management, transit, community policing and prudent fiscal planning also ranked as high priorities.

But council member Matt Czajkowski, a long-time proponent of priority budgeting, said he’s not confident this step moves the council any closer to making tough decisions.

“We are so lost in words. The purpose is to incorporate great big concepts, but they’re so vague at the end of the day, for a lot of them it is hard to distill what they really mean,” said Czajkowski. “And to me the hard part is going to be priority budgeting things like raises, healthcare, library, et cetera. Very tangible things.”

Council member Laurin Easthom noted that this is only the first time the council has taken this approach, and she said the process is likely to change along the way.

“It is, for the town of Chapel Hill, an experimental approach, so I don’t know how much weight you could give to our first undertaking,” said Easthom. “We’ll see how it all plays out.”

The council is set to discuss the specific goals as well as the overall process at a planning retreat scheduled for early February.