By Carl Blankenship
CHAPEL HILL — Orange County’s recommended local budget carries millions in budget increases for local schools, but not as much as the districts asked for.
The recommendations for the upcoming fiscal year, presented Tuesday, include a $4.2 million increase for Orange County Schools and a $5.15 million increase for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.
As the recommendation stands, OCS is getting more of what they asked for at $42.78 million, with nearly $2 million more than what it told the county it needed to continue at its existing level of service, but $6.5 million below its “expansion request” That would enable it to add a litany of new programs. The county recommendation Chapel Hill-Carrboro comes in at $6.15 million short of the district’s expansion request, and $3.45 million short of what the district says it needs to carry on with business as usual.
The increase will stave off completely depleting the $5 million CHCCS has remaining in its fund balance, basically a public entity’s savings account. The district’s continuation request, a nearly $8.5 million increase, included recouping the nearly $5 million it took out of its fund balance to make ends meet last year.
CHCCS Chief Financial Officer Jonathan Scott told the county last week if the district did not receive any funding increase, the district would be forced to deplete its fund balance and still fall $3.5 million short. Scott noted the fund balance has been able to hold steady because of COVID-19 relief funding, but that money is dwindling. The last installment of COVID-19 money for schools must be spent by the end of 2024.
There is a silver lining for CHCCS because the recommendation includes a special district tax increase of 1.5 cents. During the Tuesday meeting, Bonnie Hammersley said the increase would add about $2.1 million in recurring funding for the district in the upcoming fiscal year. The recommendation also matches the increase in local funding per student between the two districts at an additional $538 each.
Orange County Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Earl McKee said he suspects the funding increase will move OCS into position as the district in the state which receives the second-most local funding per student in the state — behind CHCCS — and Hammersley responded, while she was not aware if that was true on Tuesday, the county will produce that data for an upcoming work session
CHCCS’s expansion items, which will go completely unfunded in the county’s recommended budget, include additional pay increases for hourly employees like bus drivers and cafeteria workers as part of the implementation of a salary study, an additional supplement for beginning teachers, funding teaching license renewal fees and a supplemental two weeks of paid parental leave for all employees.
Some cost increases are required for districts each year regardless of whether anything about how the district operates changes, because the state mandates salary increases and the cost of benefits increases as well. The state is currently embroiled in budget negotiations, so the amount of additional funding needed to cover continuation costs are estimates which could change.
These local budget figures also only represent part of the money available to districts. The state provides annual funding on a per-pupil basis. However, all funding for capital projects like building new schools is required to come from the county, with the exception of a limited state capital grant program.
The county budget could change in the coming weeks. There will be two public hearings and four work sessions, beginning May 11, before a final budget is approved.