The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday November 29th

Tax could ease ‘huge’ cuts to K-12 schools in Orange County

Board of education members from two area school systems emphasized the importance of local funding to county officials Tuesday night as major federal and state budget cuts loom for the upcoming school year.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners met with the school boards from Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools to discuss the most efficient ways to lessen the impact of a 13 percent reduction in funding to public education that has been proposed by the state House of Representatives.

Superintendents from each school system made budget presentations to commissioners for the 2011-12 school year and explained the benefits schools could receive if the referendum for a quarter-cent sales tax increase is passed in November.

“We’re looking at a 20 percent state funding reduction since 2008,” said Patrick Rhodes, superintendent of Orange County Schools. “That is a major problem, and that’s why local funding support is so important.”

Rhodes said his system will see a 2.5 percent increase next year in the number of students, and funding from the county is essential to keeping the per-pupil monetary allocation the same.

Superintendent Neil Pedersen of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools said he expects to see a $7.7 million reduction in funding to schools in his system.

“We can try to read through these state budget cuts calmly, but the reality is these are huge, unprecedented numbers that threaten the quality of education in the state and in this county,” Pedersen said.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools are also seeking funds to start construction of a new elementary school in 2013.

County Manager Frank Clifton said funding this project and adequately meeting the needs of local school systems in the future will likely result in higher taxes.

“What we’re doing now is not sustainable,” Clifton said. “Regardless of everything else, we have got to diversify the tax base.”

If approved by voters, the annual $2.5 million in revenue generated by the sales tax increase would be split evenly between the school systems and county economic development programs.

“One of the problems we had with this tax increase proposal the first time was the sense that our commitment was a little fuzzy,” said Commissioner Steve Yuhasz. “People didn’t know what the money was going to be spent for.”

Commissioner Chairwoman Bernadette Pelissier said the county would commit to providing the tax revenues to the school system for a 10-year period.

“I hope this time we’ll have more support and that we can sell (the sales tax) to the public,” she said.

Stephen Halkiotis, former county commissioner and member of the Orange County Board of Education, said funding at the local level is the last resort.

“The ray of hope that exists is the board of commissioners,” he said. “It’s going to be up to us to change some of those mentalities in Raleigh any way we can.”

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