The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education has decided to think big in its budget request to the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

The decision by the Board on Thursday gave a reprieve — at least for now – to the gifted specialist program, which could have faced serious cuts.

“We have to own that we live in a different kind of place. We’re between universities. We’re near Research Triangle Park. We have to own that we do, in fact, have a larger number of gifted learners than many areas across the country. And we have to be OK saying that. And we have to meet the needs of these learners.”

That’s Tina CoyneSmith, speaking to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board on Thursday night, during a meeting at the Lincoln Center.

CoyneSmith is the mother of a fourth-grader at Seawell Elementary. She pleaded with the Board not to follow through with a proposal to cut more than $536,000 out of gifted specialists in schools K-8.

That amount is more than half of the nearly $910,000 the school system wanted to cut, in order to chip away at a $2.2 million shortfall caused by depletion of the school system’s fund balance.

With the cuts taken off the top, the Board was ready to ask for $2.8 million, or perhaps even $2.9 million, in a budget request to County Commissioners.
The public reaction to cutting gifted specialists was mostly negative. So at Thursday’s meeting, Superintendent Tom Forcella requested more time to consider where cuts could be made, without focusing them too much in one area.

School Board Chair Jamezetta Bedford reiterated the strategy for her fellow Board members.

“We can send a budget request to the County Commissioners without delineating where, exactly, the 909,000 is going to be cut from.”

Typically, the County receives budget requests from Chapel Hill-Carrboro around April 15.

Before long, the discussion turned to asking commissioners for the full amount — $3.8 million – without the planned cuts. Part of that idea is to impress upon the County Commissioners how serious the situation is.

That amount would necessitate a tax increase of nearly 3 cents, which is the highest tax increase any of the Board members could recall. It would be raised by raising the district tax, property tax, or a combination of both.

School Board member James Barrett responded to concerns from fellow board members about raising taxes that amount for schools.

“Income taxes for many of us have gone down at the state level,” said Barrett. “The state gave back money, and we’re bearing the brunt of it.”

He also took exception when fellow board member Mia Day Burroughs related that she’d had conversations with commissioners who had “gasped at the amount” that would have included the cuts.

Here’s Barrett’s response.

“For multiple years, we have told them there’s a cliff coming,” he said, “that we’re going to run out of our fund balance and we’re going to require a tax increase at that time. Here it is. This shouldn’t be a surprise to any commissioner. “

School Board member Annetta Streater, who voiced support for asking for the full amount well before the vote, said that the School Board needs to start looking at what other cuts will likely need to be made next year.

“You’re suggesting that we’re going to need to cut another million, beyond $900K, so we might as well put that stuff on the table too, and start grinding at it.”

Bedford reminded fellow Board members that teachers assistants would like be the next to face reductions.

In the end, the School Board voted unanimously to ask for $3.8 million, even though the likelihood of getting it seems very small.