The two school districts in Orange County need about $330 million worth of love, district leaders say. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools alone has $212 million in unfunded renovations and expansions—a rather hefty backlog for one of the best-funded school districts in the state.
"This community grew like crazy in the 1990s and early 2000s," says Mia Burroughs, who served seven years on the CHCCS board prior to becoming an Orange County commissioner in 2014. "We were bringing online an entirely new school every few years or so. Then the recession hit, and there were various funding cuts with the state, and the districts got kind of caught up by that."
As growth in the school districts slowed, the challenge became maintaining aging schools.
"There hasn't been a significant increase in county funding for renovations at schools, even as we've added all these new buildings," says CHCCS chairman James Barrett. "So now we have more buildings to maintain and not enough ongoing capital money to do things like replace roofs and heating systems."
Barrett also notes that lottery money that the district gets from the state has declined significantly, the result of decisions by the General Assembly—$1.3 million a year, down from $2.6 million seven years ago.
The county has a solution—sort of. In November, voters are being asked to approve a $120 million bond for CHCCS and Orange County Schools. (A separate bond on the ballot asks voters to fund $5 million toward affordable housing.) The schools bond is projected to add somewhere between 3.7 and 5.8 cents to the tax rate, meaning a property valued at $300,000 will see a property tax increase somewhere between $111 and $174 per year.
That $120 million would be split between CHCCS and OCS, based on district population. If the bond passes, CHCCS intends to spend its $73 million share primarily on two projects: extensive renovations to Chapel Hill High School and a reimagining of the Lincoln Center campus that will culminate in the consolidation of pre-K operations, new administrative offices, and doubling the capacity of Phoenix Academy High School. OCS will spend its $47 million adding a five-hundred-student classroom wing to Cedar Ridge High School and making infrastructure repairs and updates to mechanical systems at schools across the district.
But these fixes come up far short of the districts' needs—more than $200 million short. So what's the plan for the schools that won't enjoy the fruits of the bond? For that matter, what's the plan to keep all the schools in good shape moving forward?
"It is impossible to handle our needs with the recurring monies coming in every year," says Stephen Halkiotis, chairman of the OCS board. "Every once in a while, you have to do a bond. That's all there is to it." Halkiotis thinks $120 million was a "reasonable amount" to get started. "We can't do a three-hundred-million-dollar bond proposal without absolutely sinking taxpayers in this county," he says.
Barrett says he expects the school boards will ask the commission for additional money for the next phase of improvements—"and then we'll likely be back to having a bond conversation seven or eight years from now for the remaining needs."
Orange County commissioner Renee Price also anticipates another bond. But, she adds, "There are other financing options for capital improvements that don't require putting a bond before voters."
That's true. The county borrows money all the time. That's how it paid for Northside Elementary and how it intends to pay for the new jail and the new Carrboro library—via privately financed bonds the county didn't have to ask voters to approve.
But it's still debt. And at a certain point, the school districts and the county will need to figure out a financially viable path forward, rather than just continuing to ask voters to increase the county's credit line. For the moment, however, securing a yes vote on the bond seems more pressing.
"We've spent so much time trying to get the bond ready, and hopefully get it passed, that the focus has really just been on that first one hundred and twenty million," Burroughs says. "I think it's definitely true that there are some structural issues in the schools, and I suspect that we'll be having a conversation about that soon."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bonded Out"