Orange County's Cedar Ridge High School sits on the lip of Interstate 40, but on a gorgeous night in late October, the whoosh of traffic ran even with the sounds of roaring and gnashing. In the school's vast auditorium, county commissioners were gathering to discuss a possible merger of the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems, and parents, teachers, PTA representatives and other interested parties had packed the auditorium, determined to have their say in the matter.
On the whole, it was a mannerly audience, the kind that roars and gnashes, but at a reasonable decibel level. Sheriff's deputies hulked in the aisles and opening remarks began with a kibosh on rude or rowdy behavior. But it wasn't that kind of crowd. During opening remarks, people sat listening and waiting. Speeches were touched up and passed among allies, petitions were circulated, strategies ironed out.
When the time came for public comment, people shifted in their seats, rustling sheets of paper or thumbing through index cards. It promised to be a long night; the auditorium was packed, and more than 60 people had signed up to speak. Though some had come from nearby Hillsborough or the surrounding county, the vast majority had left their warm houses in Chapel Hill or Carrboro, driving the long dark miles up Highway 86, or through the back roads of southeastern Orange County. They were here, the vast majority of them, to voice their opposition to merger. They were well-informed, focused, prepared, earnest, full of resolve. They were also, in their well-informed and earnest way, furious.
One of the most interesting dynamics in the current squabble over merger is that, in the absence of any formal merger proposal, so many people know exactly where they stand. Chapel Hill and Carrboro parents are nearly unanimous in their resistance. Orange County residents have said they don't want to pay the higher property taxes that merger would require. A minority of folks--including many who have seen the issue float and sink in the past--say the funding inequity between the two school systems is inexcusable. Merger, they say, is much needed and long overdue.
People are dug in. They have written letters to the editor, posted roadside signs, formed coalitions and pressured candidates in the recent elections to take a stand. From the look of things, you'd think the county was prepared to force-feed merger to an unwilling constituency. And, depending on your perspective, that's either a blessing or the end of civilization as we know it.
In the midst of all this hysteria, here's a small but crucial point of fact. County commissioners are engaged in neither a formal merger study nor a merger plan. Instead, after years of trying to close the funding gap between city and county schools, they are faced with a situation in which, thanks to a special district tax, Chapel Hill schools receive about $1,167 more for each student. Confronting this inequity, Commissioner Moses Carey last January proposed that the county consider merging the two school systems. County staff have spent the year preparing an analysis of the logistical, legal and financial implications of a merger, and this fall they began taking their findings to the public.
In other words, the county is simply (if such a word can be used to describe the resulting imbroglio) looking at the possibility of merger--the potential costs and benefits. There are no preliminary redistricting plans, no proposed bus routes or staff shifts. So far, the scope of action has been limited to information-gathering, analysis and discussion.
And yet, listening to the opposition at the public hearing, it was clear that a certain tightly controlled panic had already set in. Faces were hard, jaws set. You could see the nightmare spinning itself out inside the heads of hundreds of parents: their children, bused across a hinterland, forced to learn long division with a bunch of rednecks, reduced to raising pygmy goats for the Ag Club.
Of course, no one was idiotic enough to evoke such an image. Many of the speakers, in fact--and to the scornful dismay of the pro-merger crowd--praised the Orange County schools and suggested that the county vote to equalize funding while maintaining separate city and county systems (a suggestion that county residents, fearing tax hikes, have widely dismissed). Although some worried out loud about long bus rides, many more spoke about the foolishness of fixing what's not broken and about the sense of stability and accountability they enjoy in their neatly contained city school system.
Thunder rolled, in other words, but from a distance. Several people voiced anger that the county might move ahead with merger without putting the issue to a vote, but only rarely did somebody resort to outright threats, predicting, for instance, an end to the political careers of all pro-merger commissioners, or vowing to take the fight to the state legislature.
And that, generally, was the tone of the evening. Determined opposition, muffled outrage, veiled threats. Yet, every so often, from this sea of defiance, a pro-merger speaker would surface to take the mike. Gathered in a loose pack to one side of the auditorium, this group, like their opponents, waited patiently for the opportunity to be heard. Once at the microphone, however, they were rather more heated. They had the numbers on their side, for one thing--that enormous gap in school funding--but it was the apparent hypocrisy of the Chapel Hill parents, people who have, as a group, long prided themselves on their compassionate liberalism, that really enflamed them, making the high road, and a certain militant tone, irresistible. Pro-merger speakers were having none of the smug flattery or "compromises" offered by their opposition. Orange County schools are inferior, plain and simple, they said. Rural kids from disadvantaged homes continue to hold the short end of the stick while wealthier city students enjoy stellar schools. People evoked the Berlin Wall, the Civil Rights Movement. They wondered out loud what would have happened if integration had been put to the vote. They spoke of the "plight of poor families" and declared that, unlike most Chapel Hill parents, they want their children to share classrooms with low-income kids. The message from the Chapel Hill parents, one woman said, is chillingly simple: " 'We have what we want--why should we change?' "
Whatever happens, it won't be easy and it won't be pretty. Chapel Hill and Orange County share a contentious history--so contentious that many Orange County parents have stepped up to say they don't want any part of a merger. Don't want to pay higher taxes and, perhaps more importantly, don't want to lose control of their schools.
Because, the implication is, they've lost control of so much else.
Many years ago I wrote a story about a land-use program that pitted rural Orange County residents against the political power of Chapel Hill. In an effort to protect the rural countryside from going the way of Wake County, regulations were crafted that would curtail aggressive development outside city limits. Orange County residents balked, insisting the land was theirs to do with as they please, and that they didn't need Chapel Hill meddling in their affairs. As I remember it, that particular fight was a hot one, with just about everyone standing around with their hands on their hips and their knickers in a twist. Chapel Hill got its way, of course. Because that's where the population and the money--and therefore the power--has always resided. And without significant development in the county, the political power will remain entrenched in that populous and prosperous city.
There are, in any merger decision, so many points and counter-points, so many issues and questions and problems and voices. For some reason, it is the fallout of that old land-use battle that, more than anything else, stands out in the current cacophony. It is one thing to restrict development across an entire county, but the political powers who craft the restrictions ought not circle the wagons when the county, feeling the pinch, comes seeking relief. It is true that Orange County schools are as a rule more conventional, that their curricula serve a wider range of students--including many kids who forego college for a trade, a factory job, a position on the family farm. It is also true that the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools are "elite"--not only because they enjoy better funding, but because they serve students whose parents are wealthier and better educated, kids who will go on to college and graduate school.
Chapel Hill parents do have what they want--why should they change? After all, aren't those schools the pay-off for living in more expensive houses, paying higher taxes? What possible reason could any Chapel Hill parent find to share their schools with the county--to jeopardize curriculum and reputation, to undermine property values and the convenience of neighborhood schools?
None is the answer--unless, of course, those parents do what parents are so often called on to do. Soften their hearts, conquer their tempers, ransack their souls for the scraps that are saintly and good. The pro-merger crowd claims Chapel Hill parents are too selfish and hypocritical to do that. Maybe. But for every Chapel Hill parent sparring to protect his property values and the pearly aura of upper-class bliss, there are many others who simply hope to keep their children in great schools. The truth is, parents everywhere are more or less the same. We want the best for our children--we hustle hard for it--but we are also capable, if we put ourselves to the task, of wanting the best for other children, too.
Whatever happens, it won't be easy and it won't be pretty. And the best seats in the house might be right over the county line in Durham. Several years into our own fractious merger, there is a bitterness, a rancor, that continues to taint the air. And what have we learned, here in Durham? First, that merger has given more children a better education. Second, that that education continues to be crippled by old resentments, petty griefs and open quarrels. Here's hoping that all residents of Orange County consider merger with open minds and open hearts. Only then will their children enjoy the first outcome, and avoid the second. Only then will they learn to share a seat on the bus.