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.