Panel: Merger equals fair funding

HILLSBOROUGH — The Orange County Schools need more funding from the county, and one of the only ways to get more is to merge with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro city schools, panelists said during a parent group’s forum Thursday night.

“Education is undoubtedly the key to success in life,” said Richard Kennedy, a panelist, county parent and former member of the county school board. “It’s true that money isn’t everything, but if you want to get the job done, it takes money.”

Kennedy was one of several speakers at the forum, held at Stanford Middle School and organized by Fair Funding in County Schools (FFICS).

The group, founded by a group of Orange County parents, contends that a flawed formula keeps funding for the county schools below what they need. Although the county gives each school district the same amount of money per student, the city schools garner additional funds from a special tax.

That tax, FFICS members said, means that the city schools ask commissioners for fewer dollars per pupil than the county schools. To avoid giving the city schools more money than they ask for, and to keep the funding levels equal, members said, the county has to give the county schools less than what they seek.

Because of that, the group’s advocates say, the commissioners funded only 85 percent of the county schools’ budget request this year, while they funded 98 percent of the city schools’ request.

“When Chapel Hill walks into the drawing room with its request for its budget, its bucket is already part full from money from the district tax,” said Liz Brown, one of the founding members of the fair funding group. “Chapel Hill is able to ask for less per pupil because it already has money from the district tax. If [the county] funds us fully, then Chapel Hill will get too much.”

Although the group hasn’t taken a staunch pro-merger stance, some members have said merger is the only way to fix the funding disparity. FFICS members also said merger would prevent county residents from paying for bonds that fund new schools in the city district, which is growing faster than the county district.

At Thursday’s meeting, the fair funding advocates distributed orange stickers reading, “Separate but unequal.” Another group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, passed out a flier disputing several of FFICS’ key points.

Commissioner Moses Carey, who reintroduced the merger discussion during a January board planning session, also spoke Thursday night. He told a crowd of about 40 that he decided to bring up the controversial idea — also studied in the mid-1980s — after reading a real estate ad touting increasing property values and higher IQs in the city school district.

“It implies that if you buy a house in the county school system, your child’s not going to be smart, your property value will go down,” Carey said. “I said I am going to do something about that — it’s not fair.”

Peter Kramer, a family counselor and former president of the Education Foundation; Dana Thompson, a county school board member; and John Waszak, a teacher at New Hope Elementary, also spoke.

Waszak said 33 percent of students in the county schools come from poor households, twice as many as are in the city schools.

“I think you should fund schools by their needs,” he said. “We have greater need, so we should get more money.”

The county has scheduled three formal public hearings on merger, for Oct. 16 and 23, and Dec. 4. They also have set up an e-mail address for feedback at

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