CHAPEL HILL- Orange County Commissioners signaled on Thursday that they’re looking for more money to fund public schools, but they stopped short of supporting a countywide property tax rate increase.

“As much as I believe in a strong school system, raising the taxes, personally I believe we have to really have to take a deep look at that, because the rate of poverty is increasing so dramatically in Orange County,” said Renee Price.

In the past two weeks, dozens of residents have  come out to public hearings to ask commissioners to allocate more money for the school systems.

But some commissioners worried that those who can’t afford a tax increase have not had a voice in the debate. Penny Rich said she’s been hearing from residents who did not feel comfortable speaking out on the issue.

“They are very passionate about schools but they just can’t afford any more taxes,” said Rich. “We can make the schools better by raising taxes, but they won’t be part of it, they would have to move.”

Commissioners did indicate they might be willing to increase the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax to help raise the $2 million needed to open the new Northside Elementary.

“We do have a precedent for opening schools in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools on the district tax, so I think as we’re balancing all these different needs, we shouldn’t discount that as a possibility,” said Alice Gordon.

A two-cent increase of the district tax would generate $2 million dollars, while a five-and-a-half cent increase would be needed to fully fund the school board’s budget request.

The manager’s recommended budget falls between $3 million to $8 million dollars short of what the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school boards had asked for, but Board Chair Barry Jacobs noted that the manager’s budget actually increases school spending by about $2.4 million over last year, and he said this year’s funding debate is par for the course.

“I don’t think anybody should take umbrage if we don’t fully fund what the schools request, because they know that no matter what they ask for we can never fully fund it,” said Jacobs.

Officials from both school systems are concerned about state budget proposals that would eliminate funding for teaching assistants in second and third grades.

If approved, the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro districts stand to lose a combined total of 70 teaching assistants. School board representatives estimated it would cost approximately $2.3 million dollars in local money to save those positions.

While the board agreed to keep looking for more school funding, Bernadette Pelissier warned that the county’s resources are limited.

“On the one hand, I say we have to do as much as possible for the schools. On the other hand, we can’t always fill in all the gaps that we have from the federal and state level,” said Pelissier.

Commissioners will continue their deliberations at a series of work sessions next week, with an eye toward formally adopting the budget on June 18.