What I’ve learned from the merger debate

Merger was proposed to right the social injustice of the wealthy townies in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district denying equal educational opportunity to rural children in Orange County School district, and save huge amounts of capital spending as well. Instead, the best available statistics show the financial disparity in spending per-pupil is small in a state-wide comparison, and the OCS schools have some advantages that might be lost in merger. The proposed savings on capital expense are probably illusory. Operating funding differences can and should be ameliorated further by the direct action of voters or the Board of County Commissioners without the havoc of merger. Any real lack of appropriate social services should be handled as part of the county social services budget, not blamed on ‘indifference’ of the schools or the voters.  The differences in educational curriculum, and the lack of OCS school district tax, are primarily due to the choices made and ratified by the democratically elected school boards, and the citizens who elected them. Focusing only on operating funding has left unaddressed the continuing over-crowding in CHCCS. Long-distance bussing is not an acceptable solution to over-crowding.

Can the commissioners justify a forced, significant tax increase in a difficult economic climate? This has not been answered. It is astounding that other than one single work-session, where 4 out of 5 commissioners merely read prepared position statements, there has been absolutely no public give-and-take of merger discussion between the county commissioners. Why didn’t Comm. Carey insist discussion of funding equity be added on every single work session agenda? Chairperson Brown avoids taking a public position on merger, which is surprising in view of the coming BOCC election. Was this whole debate just a set-piece, with no one except the parents and teachers of school children thinking it is a serious issue? The problems at the animal shelter have gotten more serious hours of discussion by the BOCC than the school merger/funding equity issue. Perhaps seven or nine county commissioners elected from voting districts would provide more enlightening discussions.

Where are the savings? According to the Orange County Budget Office statistics cited in the merger report, the school system as a whole would be more or less at capacity in 2013. Assuming growth continues, we would expect to build additional schools by 2015-6 timeframe, so the tens of millions of dollars in capital expense claimed as merger savings are likely just deferred about 3 years.

It has taken years of work to get the Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance passed in all jurisdictions, and its benefits would be wiped away in a heartbeat by merger. If merger occurred, a large new development could legally claim to be entitled to use school capacity located anywhere in the 400 square mile county, putting hundreds more children onto long-distance busses.

OCS has more poverty-level students, by about 13%. CHCCS has more autistic, special needs, and ESL students. No one has explained how much the per-pupil cost is for each of these statistical categories. Clearly more money can provide a richer curriculum, which provides more and different learning opportunities. Neither the county report nor OCS school board have stated any specific intention on how extra money would be spent. Site acquisition and development costs will always be higher within urban boundaries, but the county construction standards do not recognize this. Merger would encourage expensive sprawl.

The minimum number of all CHCCS students to be bussed due to merger is predicted as 1400 in 2013, and the actual experience during CHCCS redistricting is that about twice that many students will be moved from one school to another. Parents, who have built relationships with principals and teachers over years, would be forced into starting over.

The career-track offerings are obviously very different, and some parents would like to take advantage of the offering in the other district for their children. Cooperation here would be a boon, but needs to be done with the support of families, not by forced bussing. The ‘comparison of school system offerings’ as given during the public hearings came across as an attempt to claim that the two districts are already very comparable, ignoring significant differences in advanced course availability.

The statistics presented so far show that the property tax base on a per-pupil basis has been converging in both districts, and is now about 10% different.  Immediate school merger would require an immediate and implausible 25% county property tax hike. A five or 10-year plan to further reduce or eliminate the operational spending difference would probably coincide with the continuing transition of Orange County into a commuter suburb of the nearby cities. New schools will be needed due to this growth, and they should be built where the population is, not on the cheapest land.

Biographical Information: Matthew Barton has been involved with capital needs analysis for the public schools for a decade. He is a founding member of INFORM, a citizens group that advocates for careful analysis of school funding and organizational changes.


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