School buildings across Orange County have leaky roofs, mold, heating, air problems and security issues, according to a press release from Save Orange Schools, a political action committee made up of parents and community members in Orange County. The press release said $260 million is currently needed for critical building needs alone in both school districts.
In December 2019, a CBS 17 newscast aired showing troubling video footage of Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill. The newscast showed lockers that were blocked by pools of water as the ceiling continued dripping onto the tile floor.
Cassie Ford, the leader of Save Orange Schools, said she thinks it is time addressing infrastructure issues in Orange County Schools got pushed to the forefront.
“We want people to go out on March 3 and vote for candidates who can fix this problem," she said, referencing the primary for the Orange County Commissioners election. "And the reason why we’re focusing on county commissioners is because they are the ones who control capital expense in Orange County, and that includes capital expenditures for schools."
Penny Rich, chairperson of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, said the state has cut a tremendous amount of money from the school budget. She said state budget cuts in 2012 and tax cuts in 2017 have led to a school budget deficit of $3 billion dollars per year.
Rich said although building repair should be a priority in Orange County Schools, the county commissioners can't force the schools to spend money on the buildings.
“The county commissioners do not decide what to spend the money on," she said. "We fund the schools. They decide. We do not do maintenance — they do the maintenance. We do not create a maintenance plan — the schools create a maintenance plan. So other than just providing funding, we don’t do very much."
Rich said she wonders why heads are turning away from the real problem: the lack of money from the state to pay teachers adequately.
“We could throw all the money we want into the schools. We could raise taxes a tremendous amount, and we could fix these schools, but do you know what doesn’t go away?" she said. "The opportunity gap. Why aren’t we talking about that?”
Ford said infrastructure is not Save Orange Schools' only priority. She said there’s a reason they aren’t called “Save Orange Schools’ Buildings.”
“There are critical issues and needs across the board regarding public education," Ford said. "We just believe that there is a need for advocacy in this area that isn’t being met. Teachers, who are already woefully underpaid and under-compensated, have to work in these terrible conditions. It’s not fair, it’s not right. As we can check items off our list, we can grow, to hopefully address those other issues.”
Save Orange Schools announced their plans last week to endorse candidates for the county commissioners race. All the candidates they endorsed have platforms that include improving the aging infrastructure of Orange County Schools.
The North Carolina primary election is scheduled for March 3, and early voting takes place Feb. 13-29.
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