Letter to Chapel Hill News 12/18/2003 (provided to us by the author)
Pro-merger advocates want to give a precious holiday gift to the community by merging the two school systems. They want to eliminate the current "social injustice" caused by differing funding levels in the two systems by creating another social injustice -- a forced 20-cent tax increase in the Orange County district, many of whose residents they say are impoverished.
Overflowing with holiday spirit, they launch personal attacks against those who are against merger, organize boycotts against hapless Chapel Hill merchants, then mourn the discord that merger has brought to the community.
Contradictions like these have never been a problem for the pro-mergerites, who appear to be a relatively small group of lawyers, doctors and other white-collar professionals anxious to call the Chapel Hill district their own.
Now that the public hearings are over and the county commissioners are deliberating what to do next, perhaps this would be a good time to examine some of their key arguments.
1. Point: The funding inequity between the two systems constitutes a social injustice.
Counterpoint: The pro-mergerites have never explained what the social injustice is they're talking about.
To be sure, there is a funding gap between the two systems as a result of Chapel Hill's district tax, but nothing prevented the county system from creating its own district tax all these years. Just a month ago, the OC school board turned back an effort by one of its members to put an OC district tax to a vote. With merger, the OC voters don't get a choice, they get the 20-cent increase and a bigger, more bureaucratic school system along with it.
From my perspective, forcing a double-digit tax increase on people you suspect don't want it without even giving them a chance to vote is the real social injustice.
2. Point: We should merge so we can be together, unifying the community socially, politically and culturally.
Counterpoint: What happened to the concept of local school districts? Do pro-merger advocates believe local school systems are somehow wrong or unconstitutional? We are surrounded by states with local school systems and they are common across America.
Here, we have two natural population centers, Hillsborough and Chapel Hill, and they are separated by a rural buffer. What more logical conclusion than to have two school districts?
To merge would not bring us closer to anyone, but would probably make life more difficult to the point that we'd do less overall. If we can improve funding on the OC side and provide equivalent programs, why do we need merger?
3. Point: The funding inequity cannot be solved without merger.
Counterpoint: This is simply incorrect.
Even if a reasonable district tax in Orange County failed on vote, the county could hold a referendum on a countywide supplemental tax, in effect a district tax for the county, which would likely succeed since the Chapel Hill district would support it. The county can also increase the countywide ad valorem tax without a vote. Either way, the funding picture could be improved.
4. Point: Busing could be minimized under merger.
Counterpoint: The scale of redistricting required to "utilize capacity" in both systems under merger would eventually be enormous.
Redistricting would run from the southern part of Chapel Hill district to the northern part, and then up into Orange County. At the elementary level, we would eventually need to bus about 650 kids, and there would be thousands bused overall. Why don't the merger supporters, who care so much for the kids, care about this?
5. Point: Anti-mergerites are afraid the quality of the school system will suffer.
Counterpoint: The only fear is of a larger, less efficient system, and of busing.
I've never heard anyone but Orange County residents worry about their children dragging the system down and I find this argument abhorrent as does everyone I've ever talked to about merger.
6. Point: We should merge because Orange County has more kids on reduced lunch programs than the Chapel Hill system.
Counterpoint: If you're concerned about poverty in OC district, why create more of it with a huge tax increase?
Merger will not change SES values, so what does merger accomplish for the poor? Perhaps pro-merger advocates plan to balance SES all across the county.
To quote one of the speakers at the public hearings, this would be "the mother of all redistricting plans." If there will not be massive countywide redistricting to balance SES, it's hard to see how merger would help poor kids at all.
The newspapers are already reporting on some of the hardships of the current holiday season, especially for families living in poverty. The pro-mergerites will undoubtedly renew their efforts, citing these families as a reason for merger. I think it's time for the large, quiet majority in the country district to stand up with the rest of us and tell them this is a gift we can't afford.
From busing to loss of local control, merger is one of those solutions that creates more problems than it solves. I think it's time to quit this discussion and move toward solutions that work for everyone. The Brown-Jacobs-Gordon proposals are a great start.David L. Weinberg
December 18, 2003
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