HILLSBOROUGH - Although they argued whether a special district tax is needed for Orange County Schools, Board of Education members finally appear to agree that it's the voters' decision, not their decision.
"For some reason, there's a belief that this board can levy a tax," board member Brenda Simpson said at the Tuesday night meeting. "I have one vote. If all of you have one vote, it's the citizens of this county who will decide whether we have a district tax."
The school board is expected to vote at its next meeting on whether to ask the Orange County Commissioners to put the tax to voters.
In a meeting filled with hand waving, interruptions, snide remarks and arguments, the board discussed how to come up with money for the school system.
Although Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has had a special district tax for its school system for decades, Orange County Schools hasn't asked for one. Last year a task force was convened to come up with alternative funding ideas for the school system.
One recommendation of the task force, which passed in a split vote, was to consider a special district tax. Several school board members, however, said the board should look for other ways to find money rather than adding another tax.
One way to do that is through an audit, board members Bob Bateman and David Kolbinsky said. But they said the audit that was completed earlier this year didn't go far enough. It should have included programs, not just items like copy machine costs, they said.
"This audit is a scam," Bateman said. "When did you look at the programs? You didn't look at the programs."
People in the community don't understand why the school system needs more money, he said.
"That's the concern in this community," he added. "As much as we're funding the schools, we should have ample money to educate beautifully 6,000 students."
Board Chairwoman Dana Thompson said it was too late to criticize the audit.
"The proper time was when we proceeded with the vote," she said.
Thompson encouraged the board to move on to the discussion of a district tax. The school board must vote to ask the county commissioners to hold a referendum on a district tax.
The task force on alternative funding methods suggested designing a proposal for a district tax with a 10-cent limit and a five-year cap. One cent of tax would raise $ 332,752 for the school system, according to county calculations. Ten cents would raise $ 3,327,519.
Board member Keith Cook said it's the school board's duty to educate students.
"We have not been able to give our children the same programs other school systems have," he said. "Why? Because we don't have any money."
Kolbinsky said residents have heard over and over again that the tax rate has to increase.
"If we're talking about asking, I think when the community hears this type of talk, I think they say, 'Here they go again. The government never has enough money,' " he said.
Before the board discussion, a number of residents, including several who are running for the school board, spoke about the district tax. Randy Copeland, a candidate, asked the board to wait for the new members to take office before making a decision about the tax.
"There may only be a couple of you here, and I'm asking you to table the discussion for a couple of months," Copeland said.
Robert Randall, who said he heads an organization called Citizens for a Sound Economy, said additional taxes would hurt the economy.
One speaker raised the hackles of several people when she said people who don't vote for the tax are selfish.
"I think when anti-tax people stand up and say we want less, what they really are saying is we want less for the children of the Orange County Schools and more for ourselves," Elizabeth Brown said.
That statement irritated school board candidate Betty Davidson, who stood up and said she had to respond to Brown's comments.
"The special district tax is polarizing this community,' she said. "I absolutely hate to see how we can call folks in this community selfish."
Farmers, retired people and other working people in northern Orange County built the county, so it's unfair to characterize them as selfish, she said.
"I would say just be careful how you characterize the folks in northern Orange County who have made much of what this county is today," Davidson said.