Our County’s Local School Crisis
A perspective from Lisa Kaylie
On October 22, a North Carolina teacher posted a video of water pouring over student lockers after a rainstorm. Just weeks earlier, students at the school had to make an emergency evacuation after their HVAC system caught fire. The school? Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill.
This school district has been plagued with serious, ongoing maintenance issues. The aging schools in this district are literally falling apart.
The school infrastructure in both CHCCS and Orange County Schools is at a crisis point. The state of our school buildings is shameful and dangerous, and our current county government shows little interest in addressing this problem.
Every day almost 20,000 students, teachers, and staff go to school in Orange County in aging buildings that do not meet modern ADA and safety standards, and that have inefficient and environmentally unfriendly aging HVAC systems. Mold issues, structural problems, the list goes on. How did we let this crisis happen in one of the richest counties in North Carolina, one that prides itself on its excellent school systems?
If you ask our county commissioners, they will quickly place the blame on the North Carolina General Assembly. It is true that the Republican NCGA has been no friend to public schools and this has forced local governments to provide supplements for daily school operations. But when it comes to the school buildings themselves, the NC State Constitution clearly states that county governments bear the responsibility for funding school buildings.
Why has our county government allowed our school buildings to fall into disrepair? The truth is, our local citizens have repeatedly shown willingness to increase taxes to support our public schools. Our county government has capitalized on that support by primarily funding school buildings and renovations through bonds rather than including realistic planning for school capital needs in the county’s capital needs budget.
Meanwhile, funding for all other county buildings quietly proceeds with little knowledge or oversight from the community. Some may argue that schools already represent half of the county’s budget, and that is “too much”. But what makes up the other half of the county’s budget, and how is that money being allocated? For example, how many of us are aware that the renovation of a single rarely used meeting room for the Orange County Commissioners in the Hillsborough Whitted Building was completed at a cost of more than $1.5 million?
There is nothing progressive about allowing our county’s children, teachers, and school staff to attend school in buildings that are not safe, healthy, or climate friendly. The Democratic primary in March of 2020 will be the de facto election of three Orange County Commissioners seats. Now is the time for our community to ask tough questions and demand accountability from our county commissioners for our county’s school building crisis.
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