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Unexpected merger of views 

"Tax me, please!" That could be the rallying cry for parents in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district, where a district tax generates an extra $1,167 for each student, in addition to the $2,556 per pupil doled out by the Board of County Commissioners.

But up in the rural part of Orange County, where farmers and landowners complain of being stretched to the limit, property tax increases inspire fear and loathing, and many see commercial development as a solution to the county's financial crunch.

Though the separate school districts also have distinct political cultures, the prospect that those districts could merge is uniting two very different political groups in opposition to the incumbent commissioners Moses Carey and Margaret Brown.

Citizens for a Sound Economy, a national anti-tax group headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, appeals to some in the rural part of the county. Its North Carolina legislative liaison is Kathy Hartkopf, wife of Al Hartkopf, a candidate for the Orange County Board of Education and active member in his own right. (Sitting school board member Randy Copeland is also an active member.) By contrast, NoMerger.org's treasurer Jay Brenman says his group's members are liberal Chapel Hill and Carrboro dwellers who vote for school bonds and environmental preservation. "I have two hybrid cars in my garage," Brenman says. The two groups have no relationship, he says. But both are putting their weight behind anti-merger candidates.

As soon as the merger discussions began about a year ago, the troops began to rally. At a public hearing last October at Hillsborough's Cedar Ridge High School, the Orange County chapter of CSE distributed flyers rebutting the arguments of Fair Funding in County Schools, an essentially pro-merger group that advocated a boycott of businesses in southern Orange. "One group continues to work for smaller government and local control. Join CSE!" the flyer read. CSE has approximately 400 members in the county, according to activist Robin Staudt, who heads the anti-merger campaign.

NoMerger.org has endorsed Valerie Foushee, a sitting member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board, and Pam Hemminger, a longtime Parks and Greenways Commission member who has children in the town district. NoMerger.org has posted hundreds of signs that say "STOP MERGER Vote July 20th" with checkmarks beside the names Foushee and Hemminger.

Both candidates said NoMerger asked for permission to put their names on the signs, but the PAC, not their campaigns, paid for those signs. "I am not a member of NoMerger.org," says Foushee. "I'm pleased to have their endorsement." Foushee says she knows about eight of the group's nine steering committee members well because they serve on school governance committees in the town district. "I just know them to be responsible people who are very involved in our schools. I think that they fear anything that would take away their ability to be involved in their children's education."

NoMerger steering committee member Mark Peters says the group has 220 members, but a privacy policy keeps those members' names confidential. "Our main goal was to make sure people are informed about what's going on. We didn't want anything that would inhibit people from joining," he says. "A funny thing is, we had several members approach us and say they wanted to go just above the reporting limit so they would be publicly on record as against merger." But the group, which accepts contributions through its Web site, will only accept donations of $99 or less -- just under the state's reporting limit. "We are a grassroots organization and we don't want to be seen as being influenced by people with large donations," Peters says. Some of those members may be county district residents, he says, but members can join anonymously by simply submitting an e-mail address, so membership statistics are unavailable.

"A large part of our effort goes to things that have nothing necessarily to do with who to vote for and who not to vote for," said Brenman. "Most of it is just trying to wake up voters and letting people know that you're electing your commissioner in July, not in November." Orange County voters have not put a Republican on the BOCC in recorded history, therefore the Democratic primary is expected to determine the board's makeup. Brenman says NoMerger.com offers information about absentee voting. "That's a role that nobody else was playing. Most candidates are just like, 'here's my name, vote for me,' and they don't care about getting that information out there."

CSE is not a political action committee and does not endorse candidates, but Staudt says she mailed pledges to all candidates for county commissioner and the Orange County school board. "I pledge that I will not vote for in any way, or in any way support the merger of the Orange County schools with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro city schools," reads the statement. CSE will publish on its Web site a list of candidates who signed and returned the pledge. "We're about accountability," Staudt says. "If they break our pledge, we do publish that result also."

Foushee said Monday she had not yet received anything from CSE and was unfamiliar with the group. "I don't know much about them. Actually I don't know any of them. I've never met [Al Hartkopf]." Foushee recalls hearing a few CSE representatives speak at the October merger forum in Hillsborough. "I remember receiving a flyer. That's my only encounter with that group." Hemminger was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

Brenman says he is a registered Democrat, a standard Chapel Hill-Carrboro liberal like the other members of NoMerger. "I'm not that familiar with them," he says of CSE. There has been no cooperation between the groups, he says. "Not at all. I mean, there's about as much conversation between them and us as between us and Moses Carey, which is none at all."

NoMerger will not endorse candidates for the Orange County school board race, Brenman says. "We are not touching the county school board with a 20 foot pole." Yet the group did send questionnaires to those candidates, asking for their position on merger. "Sometimes it's useful to have statements on the record, because sometimes people don't take ownership of their past quotes," he says.

Staudt praised NoMerger for getting out information about the issue, but says she has had no interaction with its members besides conversations at public meetings. "Some of our goals are the same," she says. "They want to maintain local control, which is very important." She says Chapel Hill-Carrboro residents would get a tax cut if the districts merged. If they prefer to be taxed, she says, her group supports that. "It's almost a private property issue. They've made the investment. They moved there for those schools. "


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