OC Commissioners Commit to Culbreth Labs, But Other Projects Face Delays

CHAPEL HILL- Orange County Commissioners on Thursday re-prioritized the five-year capital spending plan in order to kick-start construction on a nearly $5 million dollar science wing for Culbreth Middle School.

“In terms of it being the right thing to do, these labs have been needed for a long, long time,” said Commissioner Alice Gordon, who has been a staunch supporter of the project.

No formal vote was taken, but board members signaled that they are prepared to spend $600,000 in the next fiscal year and approximately $4.3 million over the next three years to build the six classroom expansion.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese told the board that the extra space will delay the need build a new middle school by at least two years.

“The addition would result in the increase of school capacity of 104 students, which based on the current SAPFO projections would push the need back two years at this point in time,” said LoFrese.

But in order to stay under the county’s debt limit, construction funds for the Southern Branch Library will also be delayed. Though commissioners agreed to spend $600,000 next year on land acquisition, the $7 million needed to build the library would not be available until 2017.

The push to build a science wing for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district met with push back from Board Chair Barry Jacobs, who argued that the plan did not take into account the needs of the Orange County School system.

“We used to talk about equity. We don’t even talk about it any more. It’s not even on the radar,” Jacobs told the board. “One part of equity is treating both school systems with some degree of fairness. Y’all are ready to jump in and spend all this money without even worrying about the impact it might have on the Orange County system.”

He sought assurances from board members that they would support allocating $3.3 million to build an auxiliary gym at Cedar Ridge High School in two years time.

And while both school projects could conceivably fit into the budget for the next five years, Finance Director Clarence Grier warned the board that six years out the county would exceed its debt capacity.

“We can handle it in the short-term, but as we add projects in the long-term, it affects our debt capacity and becomes an issue,” said Grier.

Jacobs suggested the answer to the funding puzzle may lie with voters.

“If we’re going with debt capacity as our guiding principle, we’re done,” said Jacobs. “We are done unless we do a bond, unless we ask the voters, “Are you willing to tax yourselves for other needs? Do you want to tax yourselves for a jail, for park development, for affordable housing, for the next middle school?’ Or are we going to say, ‘We’re done for a while. No jail, no nothing. Done.’”

The board will finalize the Capital Investment Plan at a future work session. The manager’s recommended budget will be presented on May 21.


CHCCS Facing Tough Decisions With Projected Budget Shortfalls

CHAPEL HILL – The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education has to make some tough decisions coming up. The district faces a $5 million shortfall for this next fiscal year in addition to potential cuts in state funding. The Board met Thursday night to take public comment and also held its own discussion on the superintendent’s recommended budget.

“What we were talking about was if there were opportunities for us to do some cost-savings and looking at us being more cost-efficient with our resources,” said Chair of the Board Michelle Brownstein.

The Board discussed consolidating high school classes that were under-enrolled, even suggesting using telecommunication teaching methods between schools. The Board also addressed the cost and effectiveness of virtual or online classes.

Public comments included one speaker who said “we will have your back” in regards to the Board trying to keep class sizes down. Another speaker voiced her concern on the lack of teaching assistants in elementary classes. Released Wednesday, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory’s proposed budget caused a stir in the education community. It’s estimated about 1,800 full-time teachers will be hired over the next two years. However, the trade-off is cutting teaching assistants.

“It’s kind of a shape-shifting of sorts where the PR on it is that they are adding teachers but really all they are doing is adding the teachers they are required to add because of increased enrollment,” Brownstein said.

Teaching assistants’ salaries are primarily state-funded except for some funding from the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

“We really need input in particular from the elementary community because it looks like state funding may be lost for teachers’ assistants at all level except for the kindergarten and first-grade level,” Brownstein said.

Brownstein said the Board is still finalizing the numbers but will likely request an additional; $422 per student in funding from the county to cover the loss of federal funds and the cost of opening the new Northside Elementary.


Aldermen Not Pleased With BoCC Actions On Recycling

CARRBORO – The Carrboro Board of Aldermen had stern words for the Orange County Board of County Commissioners just days after the Commissioners voted to take the next step in potentially privatizing the Orange County Recycling Program.

“The impact to the changes to the recycling program for Carrboro residents would be the elimination of Orange County’s curbside recycling as of July 1, 2014,” says Town Manager David Andrews. “The economic impact if Carrboro tax payers had to assume that cost would be about $300,000.”

The Commissioners voted last Thursday to put into action the possibility of privatizing trash and recycling pickup in Orange County. Assistant County Manager Michael Talbert said at the meeting that there will be multiple opportunities for the Commissioners to provide input or make changes.

Under the current system, residents in unincorporated Orange County pay a fee for access to county trash and recycling services. The proposal suggested would privatize future collection, resulting in a standardized fee for rural residents.

But Aldermen comment at Tuesday’s meeting was against that proposal. The Commissioners’ vote did not formally approve any decision on the matter, but Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton says the County Commissioners need to find a different solution.

“This is highly valued by people in our community,” says Chilton. “County Commissioners: there are a number of possibilities. Please find a solution and have that solution be that we are all going to continue to get this important service.”

Chilton says he would prefer to see recycling in Orange County go the other way.

“Some of our current recycling program is contracted out to private companies, and some of it is done in house by our county government,” says Chilton. “If anything, we need to be moving in the other direction. When it comes to solid waste management, it aught to be about having county employees perform the roles.”

Town Manager David Andrews says he sees at least one other potential solution.

“There’s a really simple solution to it all,” says Andrews. “That would be for the town to advocate that Orange County continue to fund the recycling program as it is and raise their property taxes. That way, nothing changes—it’s that simple.”

Alderman Jacquelyn Gist also brought up the potential impacts on those the current system employs.

“What about the staff,” says Gist. “There are people who’s entire careers have spent building this amazing recycling program. Maybe some of them are ready to retire and this is why this is happening—I don’t know.”

Other issues discussed by the Aldermen included the equipment currently used to collect trash and recycling as well as the time, effort and money already invested in the County’s robust recycling effort.

The County Commissioners are scheduled to further discuss the issue at a workshop meeting April 9, with a public hearing on the subject currently planned for April 23.