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We sent the following survey out to the 2006 Orange County Board of County Commissioner Candidates.

1. If elected, would you oppose or support a county commissioner initiated merger plan in the next term of office? Would you make or second a motion to get merger back on the table?

Battle -  I would not make or second a motion to put merger back on the table, and I would oppose a county commissioner initiated merger plan.  Both the residents of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and the Orange County Schools have overwhelmingly expressed opposition to merger, and as a county commissioner it is my job to uphold the values that our citizens hold.  I don’t support forcing things on my constituents that they don’t want.

Cutson - I would oppose attempts to revive the merger issue and would not second a motion to place merger back on the table. Public hearings and citizen input has indicated the majority of citizens are not in favor of merger and this issue has been examined and debated past the point of diminishing returns. However, citizens should note that if elected officials in the CHCCS fail to responsibly coordinate residential growth with adequate school facilities (negating SAPFO principles) then merger will eventually surface again if overcrowded schools and lack of land for school facilities “forces” expansion into the county.

Daniel - I would not support a plan for merger during my term in office. I would not second a motion to bring merger back on the table. I would oppose and resist such actions.

Franklin - I would oppose a county commissioner initiated merger plan unless it was a detailed merger plan requiring approval by a majority in both school districts in a straight up or down referendum.  I would be willing to make or second a motion to put a detailed merger plan to a straight up or down referendum requiring approval by a majority in both school districts.

Gordon - I would oppose a county commissioner initiated merger plan.  No, I would not make or second a motion to get merger back on the table.  Of course, if the state legislature mandated 100 school districts for the 100 counties, there would be no choice.

Jacobs - I am not in favor of resurrecting the divisive issue of merger in the foreseeable future. I recently made a motion to take merger off the table as an option in the commissioners’ ongoing discussions of school equity. The motion passed 4-1.

Nelson - Clearly, the community is divided on the issue of merger.  The commissioners have taken the issue off the table, and I expect it to remain so for the foreseeable future—perhaps permanently, unless the General Assembly forces Orange County to revisit the issue.  I would not make or second a motion to get merger back on the table in the next 4 years.

Davidson - I will not support a county commissioner initiated merger plan in my next term of office.  I would not make or second a motion to get merger back on the table.  I am very weary of the merger debate.  As a former Orange County School Board member I opposed merger. 

2. Is there a problem with school funding or is this the case of two districts who have the taxation and funding that they desire? What is your interpretation of the defeat of the OCS district tax?

Fred Battle - I think there is a problem with school funding.  Clearly, there is much progress that needs to be made in both districts on issues like minority student achievement.  Increased funding could help lead to better results.  But I also think that if the Commissioners make efforts to increase school funding they should demand increased accountability from the school districts.  We need to see tangible, measurable evidence that increasing funding to the districts is also increasing their levels of achievement.  As far as the defeat of the OCS district tax, this is a referendum that the County Commissioners should not have forced on the voters of the Orange County Schools, ... (100 word limit)

Robin Cutson - The school funding issue must balance: 1.) need for adequate funding for all schools; 2.) respect for local control/funding choices; 3.) ensuring county taxes don’t harm residents with low/ moderate incomes. The best compromise solution is to implement a moderate increase in per pupil allocation (by increasing the ad valorem tax and/or reducing overall county expenditures) while retaining the CHCCS district tax with desired adjustments. Otherwise, as funding disparities increase, pressure for merger will increase even though merger would cause even higher taxes for county residents. As with many referendums, the OCS district tax rejection fails to provide meaningful conclusions.

Jamie Daniel - The two school systems have the funding they desire as determined at the ballot box. I see the defeat of the district tax as being the will of the voters in Orange County. The people have spoken.

Artie Franklin - There is a problem with school funding. Neither Board of Education is satisfied with its budget funding nor with the level of taxation within its district. Tax increases may benefit the school systems, but will negatively impact some taxpayers. While Boards of Education have education budgeting authority, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) has tax authority and must balance the negative impacts of taxation with all budget requests.
A combination of voters who thought the district tax would be too burdensome and voters who thought the district tax would provide too little overwhelming defeated the OCS district tax.

Alice Gordon, Ph.D. - (a) Since the two districts are among the best funded in the state, it can be argued that they are paying the taxes for which they have voted and are willing to pay.  However, there is a concern that I will address in the second question. (b) The defeat confirms the 2-1 vote against the bond referendum in 2001.  It means that the OCS voters will probably vote against increased taxes, at least in the current climate. That still means that there are some voters in the OCS who will support increased taxes for schools.

Barry Jacobs - There is a funding problem, or rather a perception of funding inequity. The $14 million difference in available resources between the CHCCS district and the OCS district creates a sense that greater opportunity is available in one district. Actually, both systems are among the best-funded in the state, and would be separately celebrated if not in close proximity. I promoted placing a district tax on the ballot for the Orange County system. The sound defeat of this alternative presented a mixed message: against merger and higher taxes, yet also against anything short of equal funding with the CHCCS schools.

Mike Nelson - A problem exists as long as the parents in the county are dissatisfied with the quality of education available to their children relative to those in city schools.  Everybody wants the same thing for their children—a quality education with adequate resources.  It’s difficult to definitively interpret the intent of voters when they defeated the district tax.  Some are against all taxes; some wanted merger or nothing; some voted against it because the issue wasn’t clearly explained.  Rather than reading tea leaves, I think it’s important to redouble our efforts to resolve the funding inequity between the two systems. 

Betty Tom Davidson - The people within our two school districts have decided by referendum to fund schools differently.  A voter-approved tax levy passed a decade ago in Chapel Hill/Carrboro Schools and in November 2005 the voters categorically opposed such a tax levy for Orange County Schools.  Further, I am not confused by the defeat of the OCS district tax.  Residents in the Orange County School district will not impose an additional tax upon themselves as they are struggling with the current ad valorem tax rate. This is democracy in action as a democratic government is here to serve its people. 

3. Have you ever publicly commented in support of merger?

Battle - No.

Cutson -
I have spoken out against merger and my position on this issue is consistent with my general viewpoint. In my campaign for Chapel Hill Town Council I criticized the Town’s expanding government bureaucracy on the basis that larger governments/administrations tend to be more costly, less efficient and dilute the effectiveness of citizen input/influence. I believe the same holds true regarding schools. Maintaining two districts ensures greater accountability, a stronger voice/ influence for parents and ensures the ability of school boards to more effectively respond to whatever special needs arise as indicated/requested by the students and parents in their particular districts.

Daniel - NEVER. I have always been, and continue to be - the No Merger candidate. No politically acticulate answer here. I am not in favor of a school merger.

Franklin - I have stated that I would support merger of CHCCS and OCS if a detailed merger plan is approved by a straight up or down referendum in both school districts.

Gordon -(a) No.  My position on merger in December 9, 2003 was posted on the county web site. Of course, events since then have made some parts of my proposal outdated. (b) The CHCCS district is better funded for operating expenses because of the district tax.  On the capital side, the OCS is in better shape, since they will have no new school needs for ten years.  In contrast the CHCCS needs new schools over the next decade, beginning with elementary school #10.  There is only partial funding for that school, and no easy way to fund the other new CHCCS schools, thanks in part to the "60/40" capital funding policy which I opposed.

Jacobs - Once the issue was raised, I publicly supported exploring and discussing the pros and cons of merger. I purposely refrained from stating a position until I had a chance to listen to residents and school board members, and until I could review and weigh evidence on the subject. I subsequently decided to oppose merger, and as an alternative advocated a closer examination of the efficiency of school spending, an educator-driven study of the two systems (the Grumet report), and heightened efforts to pursue collaboration between the districts in all feasible areas.

Nelson - I cannot recall if I made public comments regarding merger.  I do recall making a statement that I believe merger is inevitable eventually.  What I meant by that is that the leadership in the state legislature has made their position abundantly clear that they do not desire to fund more than one school district per county.  Once before, in the not-too-distant past, the legislature passed a law requiring merger of school districts in counties with more than one district.  While there is no evidence that they will do so again anytime soon, it would be short-sighted to ignore the possibility.

Davidson - I have never publicly commented in support of merger.

4. What problems besides differences in funding would school merger solve? What problems might a merger create?

Battle - As I have said I oppose school merger.  The biggest problem it would cause is that it would be a slap in the face to democracy, by ignoring the overwhelming voices of activists concerned about the schools who are opposed to merger.  Beyond that though it would create 45 minutes bus rides and disrupt the traditions that the Orange County and Chapel Hill/Carrboro Schools have developed over the years.  Merger would not be good for the children in either district from a logistical stand point, and when it comes to schools issues advocating for them is my top priority.

Cutson -
CHCCS, via the district tax, funds schools at a much higher level than OCS and almost all other N.C. school districts.  Due to higher population density the CHCCS district has greater voting power than the OCS district; thus a merged system would probably be funded at the higher CHCCS level resulting in much higher taxes for county residents. This could cause serious financial hardship for county residents with low to moderate incomes. Merger could also result in increased/longer bus rides for children; loss of parental input due to larger system; reduced accountability; and increased pressure to develop in the county. 

Daniel - It may bring more leverage to the school board via purchase power, leasing of equipment, etc. Not enough of a benefit in my opinion. As we have seen with OCSB redistricting, I can see busing will be an issue, the powers that be will claim it will not be, but we know it will happen. Children will be bussed to Chapel Hill from Hillsborough and vice versa. There are many issues that it will cause such as : loss of local control, transportation issues, loss of funding due to racial diversity and social-economic issues since the county as a whole will be evaluated instead of each school system.

Franklin - There may be some cost savings involved in combining administrative functions, but cost-saving forecasts in mergers tend to be overstated.   Problems created by a merger would include the elimination of the only major elected body that still has non-urban representation (the Orange County School Board); a more unwieldy school system; reduced time spent with family and participating in other activities; a less local and less responsive school board and administration; a majority of citizens who will be dissatisfied with the change; and dissolution of the only education-dedicated revenue source in Orange County.

Gordon -(a) It would solve no additional problems beyond funding of which I am aware.  I do not know of any evidence that demonstrates that there will be educational advantages to the merging of school districts.  However, it might eliminate perceptions of social injustice.  (b) The additional problems would be bussing of students to the other school district.  Right now, most of the children being bussed would be CHCCS students, since OCS has most of the extra capacity.

Jacobs - An argument can be made that merger would promote greater opportunity for all students, as well as save money and serve to unify the county. However, merger might destroy the distinctive character now manifest by each county school district. By creating a larger bureaucracy it could undermine the parental involvement so important to student achievement. There is also evidence that merged systems would not generate substantial savings.

Nelson - Now that merger of the two school systems is off the table, both sides should come together with renewed vigor to support efforts to fund both school systems equitably and to close the achievement and graduation rate gaps—the one that exists between systems and the other between races and ethnicities.  I believe we do a disservice to our community and the children in our school systems by continuing to beat a dead horse.  I intend to lead the community away from divisive arguments about merger and towards a solution for the equity issue.

Davidson - “The answer to questions about the effect of money on schools is still incomplete, contradictory, and even confusing,” says Thompson and Wood, Money and Schools, 3rd Ed.  We have well funded school systems and are fortunate to not be on Judge Manning’s list of failing schools.  I argue that Orange County’s educational finance plans far exceed an adequacy criterion as is currently being defined by Judge Manning and the N.C. Supreme Court.  Local control increases responsiveness and innovation.  Centralizing services may create more uniformity but our populations have distinctive characteristics marking success for each group.  A merger will create a ... (100 word limit)

5. Do you support the siting and building of neighborhood schools as the center of a walk-able, sustainable community?

Battle - I certainly support the building of neighborhood schools.  I’ve been involved in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro Schools for over fifty years, and this is an issue that I have lived.  I grew up on Hillsborough Street in Chapel Hill and walked far past the old Chapel Hill High at University Square every day on my walk to Lincoln High School.  I had a great experience at Lincoln, but I certainly haven’t forgotten what it was like to walk to a school twice as far away as the one closest to my house.  We need kids to be able to go to the schools closest to them, and for them to be within walking/biking distance as often as possible.  Merger would hurt this ideal.

Cutson -
Obviously it’s best for children and parents when children attend schools close to their neighborhoods. This enhances community ties and safety; enables parents to respond quickly in case of illness at school or family emergencies; promotes participation in after school events; and eliminates undesirable long bus rides for children. To ensure children attend neighborhood schools, municipalities/counties need to agree to, and honor, SAPFO principles requiring balancing residential growth with availability of land/funds for new school facilities.  As Chapel Hill is close to build-out, future residential growth will need limiting and Orange County needs an immediate MOU from Mebane regarding SAPFO.

Daniel - Yes. I think the current commissioners have botched their future planning. There needs to be fresh ideas and respect for sustainable communities as key to our overall success with any growth plan.

Franklin - Schools should be built where children are. Because of the dispersal of children in the OCS district, centralized school buildings seem sensible. In CHCCS, neighborhood schools make sense; however, it is important to have sidewalks in walk zones - particularly on major thoroughfares - to enhance student safety.

Gordon - Yes.  Of course I support walk-able, sustainable communities, and schools can serve as a logical center. 

Jacobs - I have supported the siting and building of neighborhood schools as integral to a walkable community. I advocated and voted alone for the redesign of the Twin Creeks park and school site in response to parental concerns about improving walkability. I worked on smart growth standards for Carrboro High School that required connection to town sidewalks, bike lanes, and public transportation. I continue to promote reexamination of school siting standards that currently promote sprawl and auto-driven transit.

Nelson - Yes, absolutely.  I firmly believe that walkable, connected communities benefit everybody.  Walkability improves safety, enhances community ties, and means public services can be delivered more efficiently. 

Davidson - I support the community school concept as long as neighborhoods are planned with affordable housing in mind.  Such planning assures a diverse community accessible to all.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated $10 million to a 21st Century High School Reform Initiative in North Carolina to jumpstart such small school endeavors.  I look forward to seeing the results.

6. Do you want to eliminate the city district tax?

Battle - I certainly do not support the elimination of the CHCCS district tax.  Schools being well funded has always been a high priority for me, as it was when I served on the CHCCS School Board from 1985-1989.  It is not the place of the County Commissioners to tell the residents of the city schools that they can’t pay a special tax if they want to.  Creating equity by reducing the funding of the CHCCS is an abysmal idea.  The Chapel Hill/Carrboro voters have made school funding a priority for them by agreeing to pay this tax, I applaud them for it, and I’m not going to take away their ability to do so.

Cutson -
The choice to retain or eliminate the district tax should always rest in the CHCCS district voters as this is a matter of choice. Absolute equity in school funding will not exist as long as parents value choice and control over their children’s education and options such as private religious schools, military schools, home-schooling, local control and voluntary district taxes exist. Therefore, I believe we need to continue to value and respect diversity/choice while working to ensure all schools have the funding they need to meet their goals instead of focusing on dollar-for-dollar equity.

Daniel - The voters of Chapel Hill voted for a district tax, the voters spoke. Unless there would be many people requesting that the BOCC remove the tax, I think the voters decisions should always be respected.

Franklin - No, district taxes are beneficial as a means to supplement local education funding as well as declining state and federal funding.

Gordon - (a) No.  (b) Now I want to comment on the new "60/40" capital funding policy.  Though I agreed that the County had pent-up capital needs that should be addressed, I disagreed with the policy.  It increased the allocation of capital funds by hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the previous year to County government and OCS, while allocating hundreds of thousands dollars less than the previous year to CHCCS.  To make up for that deficit, the commissioners raised the district tax to "hold harmless" the CHCCS district, allowing the district to fund operating or capital expenses. CHCCS chose to fund operations.

Jacobs - The CHCCS district tax is a fact of life established long ago by town voters. Eliminating the district tax in and of itself solves nothing. Some advocate raising property taxes to completely supplant the district tax; I do not. We can narrow the funding gap between the two school systems without harming the CHCCS system. There would always be a need to retain the district tax as a revenue arrow in the county’s quiver.

Nelson -To achieve funding equity between our school systems, I support a decrease in the city school tax commensurate with a gradual adjustment in the county property tax rate. The equity problem wasn't created over night, and we shouldn't expect it to be fixed overnight either. We should avoid drastic changes and implement a well-planned series of modest, incremental steps to adjust the two systems into positions of equity.  I am open to exploring other options.   Regardless of the option we ultimately choose, our goal should be to provide adequate and equitable funding for both school systems.  We’ll know we’ve achieved ... (100 word limit)

Davidson - I respect any voter-approved referendum. 

7. Do you support giving the school boards taxation authority?

Battle - I support giving the two local school boards taxation authority.  The County Commissioners have spent too much time ineffectively dealing with this issue.  The School Boards are directly accountable to the voters of the districts that elected them and can make appropriate decisions about how best to fund their respective districts.  It could help us move forward on a lot of critical issues that have to do with educating children instead of spending all this time haggling over things at the BOCC level.

Cutson - Obviously there are pros and cons, but I am aware that many other school boards across America already have this authority. However, since there are pertinent details associated with how different areas have implemented this taxing authority, I feel an in-depth examination of their experiences and results along with public discussions on the details on how this would be structured in our area would be prudent before forming a final opinion. Also, I believe any proposal on this issue should be drawn up with input from citizens and submitted to the voters in a referendum.

Daniel - I would consider discussing giving the CHCCS control over their district tax, but I would not support OCSB having taxing authority until I, as a father with three girls in the OCSB, see better management and results of the school system.

Franklin - Hypothetically yes, but not unless both CHCCS and OCS agree. I do not expect OCS to agree because Board of Education-controlled tax authority could lead to widening the difference between per-pupil funding in Orange County’s two school districts.

Gordon - Right now it is the responsibility of the commissioners to balance competing needs and resolve school funding issues.  In that process, I would like the school boards to take more responsibility for pairing their requested funding increases with advocacy for the related tax increases.  However, until there is more discussion of the pros and cons, I cannot determine my position on the taxing authority question.   Moreover, it is the state legislature that must decide whether to grant that authority.

Jacobs - I am willing to discuss any reasonable idea, including the possibility of giving school boards taxation authority. That said, I believe in gathering evidence and soliciting public comment prior to making major policy decisions. Changing the manner in which we fund schools in Orange County and/or North Carolina requires the careful sifting of information, as well as an opportunity to ask informed questions and to hear from the public and school boards.

Nelson - Generally speaking, I am comfortable with the concept of taxation authority for local school boards.   I understand that the state legislature is the ultimate decision-maker with regard to allowing local school boards to have this responsibility.   If the local school boards request such authority, I will support seeking enabling legislation from the North Carolina General Assembly. 

Davidson - If we grant taxing authority to local schools boards, taxpayers will inevitably pay higher taxes.  Multiple governing bodies with independent taxing authority preclude that single oversight function that must be held by one tax-levying entity.  School boards are responsible for one service to the community, that being setting education policy.  Our current system promotes election to school boards of citizens who desire to write educational policy that results in productive student outcomes.  School board elections would become a mandate on tax policy, not education policy. 

8. Communities make local decisions on property taxes for sidewalks, fare free transit, energy efficiency bonds, libraries, and green space bonds. Many parts of the county choose not to tax themselves for these. Should all parts of  the county pay more to have these amenities? How far should "equity" go?

Battle - All parts of the county should not have to pay more for these amenities.  As I have said, if one area wants to tax itself more for something it values, that should be its prerogative.  The BOCC should stay out of it.  But no one should be forced to pay for additional things that they don’t want- and no one in the southern part of the county should be forced to pay for things in the northern part of the county that the northern part of the county is not willing to pay for itself.

Cutson -
Obviously communities should have local control regarding decisions to raise taxes or issue bonds to fund their choice of amenities (parks, public art, etc.) or to provide additional funding for essential services (i.e. CHCCS’s district tax). But at this point it is the responsibility of the  BOCC to either re-prioritize expenditures and/or increase ad valorem taxes if there is inadequate funding for critical infrastructure and basic necessities such as schools, EMS, police/fire protection, county facilities, trash disposal, etc.  A moderate increase in per pupil funding while allowing CHCCS to retain their district tax is a good compromise solution.


Daniel - The phrase "all parts of the county" is misleading. There is a split in this county currently, fueled by the BOCC. I think you would be hard pressed to get the people of rural Orange County to agree to raise their taxes to build sidewalks in Chapel Hill. Until there is true fair district representation (7 member board) there will not be cohesion on many "county-wide" issues. I measure equity in the value of the return for the investment, not the amount invested. First we need to focus on the value of our return instead of focusing only on the value of our investment.

Franklin - Some of these amenities are prohibitively expensive or unnecessary in non-urban areas while other are provided in central locations because of the population dispersal. It can be expedient to consider the equity of one situation independently of others, but decisions for higher funding are ultimately decisions to raise taxes, and that will negatively impact family budgets. While there can be many ways to make Orange County more equitable, one may be through property tax reforms.

Gordon - (a) The commissioners try to balance needs with ability to pay, so there is no clear answer to the first part of the question. (b) School funding "equity" means "fairness" in school funding.  Anything the county does would need to really "hold harmless" the CHCCS district, so the district needs are met.  It cannot mean that CHCCS would have its funding made stagnant, let alone lowered, while OCS caught up.  In other words, "equity" cannot go so far as to hurt CHCCS.  That would not be fair.

Jacobs - I view Orange County as a whole rather than as disparate parts. Beyond the divisions enforced by having two school systems, I tend to pursue what I consider the public interest from a countywide perspective. Amenities such as libraries, parks, and senior centers are specifically designed to serve the populace as a whole. We should site amenities where they are accessible to all. In the case of senior centers we have provided facilities in both the southern and central parts of the county.

Nelson - First, “equity’ does not necessitate ‘equality’.  Equity should be measured by the relative satisfaction of county and city school district parents with the quality of their children’s education.  With regard to other services, city and county residents should have the level of service they desire and are willing to pay for.  In the case of the school systems, parents in both school districts have indicated strong desire to provide their children with adequate resources.  Many parents in the Orange County system are dissatisfied with the quality and quantity of resources available to their children.  Orange County is a community that ... (100 word limit)

Davidson - There is no single answer to this question.  Should all taxpayers financially support public services?  Is this equitable?  We know that individuals vary in their ability to pay taxes and their use of services mentioned above.  Five principles are used to guide equity in tax policy:  benefits received, ability to pay, equal sacrifice, horizontal equity, and vertical equity (Swanson et al, School Finance:  Achieving High Standards with Equity and Efficiency, 3rd Ed.).  Much discussion is needed to address all of these issues.



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