CHAPEL HILL- Orange County Commissioners dug into reserve funds and decided to raise the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax rate this week, all to find more money to help local schools weather the cuts proposed in the state budget.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member James Barrett says the county budget will help cover some significant funding gaps.

“I think what this does is it gives us some money to cover those mandatory items and basically keep the level of service about where it is now, which is down from what it was several years ago, based on state cuts in particular,” said Barrett. “It’s not where we want it to be, but we live with it this year.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro officials were worried that the county manager’s recommended budget fell $4.6 million shy of what they asked for, leaving the district without the money to open the new Northside Elementary.

The decision to raise the school district tax by two cents will generate the $2 million needed for Northside. Commissioners also allocated $1 million in reserve funds to the district, leaving $1.6 million of the school system’s budget request unfunded.

Barrett says school board members will have to weigh some tough choices as the budget process continues.

“We talked about some of the trade-offs that we might have to make, whether that be teaching assistants, which is what the state is proposing, or freezing salaries or increasing class sizes. The board will continue to talk about it as we get final numbers and we’ll make some decisions about what’s most important to us.”

Budget proposals in the legislature would cut funding for teaching assistants in second and third grade classrooms. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools could lose as many as 37 teaching assistants, or spend up to $1.3 million to retain those positions.

The state’s push to lift the cap on class size could also take a bite out of the local budget, if district leaders decide to pay for additional teachers to improve the student to teacher ratio.

School officials had hoped to offer all staff a $500 bonus since the state budget is not likely to include a pay raise, but that money could be reallocated to cover other shorfalls.

In one piece of good news for the district, county leaders agreed to spend $600,000 in the next fiscal year and approximately $4.3 million over the next three years to build a six classroom science wing at Culbreth Middle School.

Although county commissioners were not able to fully fund the school board’s request, Barrett says next year’s budget represents a compromise.

“It’s certainly a challenge and I’m glad that the commissioners were willing to step forward with some funding and some new revenues. I wish that we’d gotten more for our kids but I understand the constraints they’re under and I’m glad we reached some sort of middle ground.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School board last week asked administrators to return with a full list of possible reductions to consider. The school board will schedule a special work session to discuss the state and local budget sometime in July, ahead of the formal vote to adopt the budget on July 18.