Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools faces $3.3 million shortfall

CHAPEL HILL –  A budget shortfall for Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools could force superintendents and Orange County Commissioners to make tough decisions over the next few months.

Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese praises Commissioners for preventing layoffs, while managing to keep property taxes at the same level for five years.

However, some of that magic was made possible by tapping money in the school system’s fund balance, which is now depleted. The fund balance supported $2.2 million of paid positions.

LoFrese says that money represents about 32 teachers’ jobs, or 65 teacher’s assistants jobs.

“That’s a lot of positions that provide important services to students,” he says.

***Listen to the full interview between Todd LoFrese and WCHL’s Aaron Keck***

On top of that, the school system must factor in rising health insurance costs. And LoFrese says that about $1 million is earmarked for possible staff salary increases.

“It’s not enough, considering what they’ve been going though for that past five years,” he says. “But a three-percent salary increase puts pressure on the local budget.”

LoFrese says all of that brings the local budget shortfall to $3.3 million.

He won’t rule out cuts to staff and services, but LoFrese says he’d rather not see that happen. He’s especially concerned about teacher’s assistants.

“The reason I’m concerned about that is because there continues to be pressure at the state level,” LoFrese says. “The state made a permanent cut to teacher assistants last year of a certain dollar amount. They’re increasing that this year.”

The 2013 cuts amounted to $120 million and the elimination of 3,850 teacher’s assistants jobs, according to an August report in The News and Observer.

LoFrese says that Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools watches the General Assembly closely; tries to anticipate its moves; and then plans accordingly.

The possibility of a statewide teachers’ raise would be included as a place holder in a budget presented to Orange County Commissioners this year.

Talks with Commissioners begin in February. A Superintendent’s recommended budget will be published sometime in early March, followed by the School Board submitting its recommended budget to the county a few weeks later. LoFrese says the final budget should be completed at the end of June.

Meanwhile, he suggests that concerned parents advocate their positions at the state level.

“This is a statewide issue,” LoFrese says, “and advocacy at the state level where these decisions that are being made that impact us – I think that’s key one right now.”

State Bill Would Thwart School Boards’ Right To Sue County Commissioners For More Funds

The Chapel Hill Carrboro School District faces a projected $4.8 million shortfall next year— and the likely hood of requesting additional funding from the county is almost certain.

Jeff Nash, Executive Director of CHCCS Community Relations, says he’s traced the districts records back to 2001 and found no indications of a law suit against the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

“In Orange County, our school system has a good working relationship with our board of county commissioners. The two have worked so well together and I don’t know if that’s just because the folks have really rolled up their sleeves and continued to be interested in the best things for our students,” said Nash.

Supporters of Senate Bill 674 say commissioners should have the last word in funding decisions. They hope to prevent taxpayer-funded legal action.

“In some part maybe having two school systems in one county— which is only the case in a handful of counties around the state—maybe there’s an added measure of accountability there,” Nash said. “I understand that the commissioners do a good job of making sure that both systems are funded adequately.”

Under current state law, a school board can announce to commissioners that it’s not receiving adequate funds. The next step is a meeting with a mediator, and if that fails, the school board can file a lawsuit in Superior Court to request more money.

“Folks here have taxed themselves at a higher rate and they do that because education is a priority and we like to think that we are seeing great results in a large part because of that,” Nash said.

The CHCCS School Board passed the budget request this month. Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese board will present a list of concerns to accompany the budget request during the April 25 joint meeting with the Orange County Board of Commissioners.