Schools ask Orange County for more money, but increase could affect tax bills

·6 min read

Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County students will need help overcoming academic, social and emotional challenges, school board members said Tuesday in asking the county for roughly $100 million in local funding for the coming school year.

The request would be an $11 million increase over the $89 million in local money the county gave the school systems last year. If approved, it would increase local spending by about $9 more per student.

The first 2021-22 budget meeting between the school boards and the county commissioners lasted about five hours. It included an update on student progress over the last year and plans for spending roughly $100 million in local funding that has been requested for the coming budget year.

While some students have been able to stay on track during COVID-19 remote learning, others are falling even further behind in math and reading, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Superintendent Nyah Hamlett and Orange County Superintendent Monique Felder said. The gaps are growing especially for Black and Hispanic students and those with disabilities in both districts, data showed.

Meanwhile, many students also are facing social-emotional and mental health challenges.

“Academic performance has fallen due to school closures and shifting to remote learning and other COVID-related factors,” Hamlett said. “Our social-emotional learning screeners have shown us evidence that students desire more social and emotional support, especially at the secondary level, and of those surveyed, almost a third of our elementary students and more than half of our secondary students have struggled to focus on school work this year.”

Summer schools, virtual academies

Both districts are planning summer programs to help students before they return to class in person this fall. Both also are planning a Virtual Academy for interested older students.

School districts get roughly half of their annual budget from the state. Local money is the next largest revenue source, followed by federal grants and restricted money, such as for food services, child care, and construction and repair needs.

Over the next year, schools also will receive millions of dollars in federal recovery money, on top of what they received from the CARES Act last year. Most of that federal money will pay one-time costs related to helping students get back on track, officials said.

In addition to the $89 million in local support for the school districts last year, millions more went to school repairs and renovations. This year, the commissioners face another difficult conversation about how to support growing educational needs without raising property taxes so high that it forces even more moderate- and low-income families to move away.

Orange County, after this year’s property tax revaluation, anticipates $2.1 million in revenues for every penny paid in property taxes.

Property owners in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district also pay a special district tax that supports education. Property owners in the county school district do not pay an additional schools tax.

Tax increase concerns

Commissioners expressed concern Tuesday about just the potential tax increase to cover a request from Chapel Hill-Carrboro for $8 million in additional funding. The county schools district is asking for an increase just shy of $3 million.

The county’s current tax rate is 86.79 cents per $100 in assessed property value. Property owners in the town limits of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and Mebane also pay municipal property taxes.

The county will pay more debt over the new few years related to a $120 million school construction bond, and already is looking at a possible 4-cent per $100 property tax rate increase, Commissioner Earl McKee said. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro request alone could require another 6-cent increase, Commissioner Mark Dorosin said.

The owner of a $300,000 home would pay $2,753.70 in county taxes — an extra $150 — if 5 cents were added to the county tax rate.

“This is a tough year, and so, if there is any way to use the fund balance money or any of the CARES Act money more effectively, I think we ought to do that,” Dorosin said.

“Candidly a tax increase of that magnitude is just not at all realistic for residents who are coming out of the pandemic,” he said.

The commissioners will meet again with the school districts and other county departments and partners after County Manager Bonnie Hammersley presents her recommended 2021-22 budget on May 4.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

Current enrollment: 11,764 public and charter school students

Expected enrollment: 12,351 public and charter school students

Current local budget: $53.4 million

Proposed local budget: $61.8 million

Current per student spending: $4,367

Proposed per student spending: $5,017.39

CARES Act funding: $2.9 million, paid for remote learning technology, personal protective equipment, food assistance for families and other COVID-related costs. About $600,000 is left, district officials said.

ESSER funding: Roughly $11 million is expected from the federal government’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund

How they would spend the money: $5 million would pay for state-proposed salary increases, retirement and health insurance costs, plus $936,000 to continue professional development pay that teachers earned. Another $3 million would pay new costs, including an expansion of social, emotional and mental health services, a new director of Social-Emotional Learning and Restorative Practices, three high school dean of students positions, and six mental health specialists at two elementary and four middle schools

What they said: “The overall goal is really to facilitate access to care while providing that high quality prevention, early intervention and detection, and intervention for standardization of services and programs to really achieve continued academic success and social-emotional wellbeing for all of our students and families,” Hamlett said.

Orange County Schools

Current enrollment: 8,266 public and charter school students

Expected enrollment: 8,218 public and charter school students

Current local budget: $35.6 million

Proposed local budget: $38.3 million

Current per student spending: $4,367

Proposed per student spending: $4,724

CARES Act funding: Just over $1 million, paid for remote learning technology, personal protective equipment, food assistance for families and other COVID-related costs.

ESSER funding: Roughly $13.4 million is expected

How they would spend the money: $1.9 million would pay state mandated salary, retirement and health cost increases, plus rising costs for operating schools. Another $985,800 would pay teacher assistants for work days, and add new teachers, equity facilitators, Burmese/Karen family liaisons, four maintenance technicians, a recruitment and talent management director, and other positions and programs.

What they said: “We understand that schools are not the only organizations hit hard by COVID-19. We know that other entities, other organizations, and the county as a whole, has been hit hard, too, by the pandemic,” Felder said. “We come to you with that understanding and asking for only what we absolutely need to be able to address our children’s mental health, social-emotional learning and academic needs, and for the support our staff will need to do that.”

What’s next

May 4: County manager presents 2021-22 budget to county commissioners

May 11: Budget public hearing

June 3: Budget public hearing

June 8: Commissioners finalize draft budget

June 15: Commissioners approve next year’s budget

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