Last week a school in Chapel Hill caught on fire.

If you don’t have children at Seawell Elementary School, you might not have even noticed. Not because it wasn’t a big deal (it was), but because we’ve all grown used to similar incidents in the Chapel Hill Carrboro City School System and Orange County Schools (which services students outside of southern Orange County).

While the CHCCS district maintains its reputation as being one of the strongest school systems in the state, our school buildings—some of which have been in poor repair for decades—are in dire need of replacement.  If one didn’t know better, it would be easy to assume that our neighboring counties, which continue to upgrade and open new schools with the support of bonds and new tax revenue, value education more than we do in Orange County. This Friday, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) will hold a daylong retreat where they will discuss whether or not to put a school bond on the ballot this November and, if so, how much the bond will be for.

How to help

Write to the BOCC. Here’s a sample letter you can use.

How we got here

Last night, the BOCC heard a proposal to address school facility needs. Although many people assume otherwise, the county government, not the school systems or the three municipalities in the county, is responsible for school facilities. In Fall 2021, county commissioner Jean Hamilton petitioned the commission to form a Capital Needs Work Group, which she chaired and included representatives from both school systems. The committee found that many of the county’s 32 school buildings were outdated, providing “sub-optimal learning environments.”

In September 2022, the committee recommended hiring a consultant to determine the full extent of the county’s needs and make recommendations for how to address them. In March 2023, the BOCC selected a consultant to assess the school facility needs in the county. In December, the consultant presented their findings, recommending that the county spend $1 billion over the next fifteen years—option D in the chart below— to replace seven schools, build two new schools, and renovate twelve other schools. (You can see their presentation here).

Chart showing options for school funding

If option D is implemented, by 2040 we will be able to once again say that our school facilities—not just our school teachers and staff—are among the best in the state. Some of our oldest schools, including Carrboro Elementary, will be replaced with new schools, and many other schools would be renovated. This would be a transformative investment, a signal that our community truly values education.

At last night’s meeting the BOCC discussed how and whether to pay to fix our schools. Because the county tends to think in terms of a ten-year budgeting window, they focused on the first decade of the scenarios outlined, which lowered the amount they need to raise. (For the seventy-page presentation, see here). When voters approve a bond, they are effectively approving a raise in taxes at a later date to help pay back the bond, so the presentation included an estimate of the tax impact of the bond, which was on the minds of the county commissioners.

Option D will require a $630 million bond. This is a lot of money, but in keeping with what our neighbors are spending. For example, in May 2022, Guilford County voters approved a $1.7 billion school bond, which, adjusted for population, would be the equivalent of a $472 million bond in Orange County. (Guilford also approved a $300 million bond in 2020). In Orange County, the last school bond was in 2016, eight years ago, for a comparatively paltry $125 million, and CHCCS’s portion proved to be insufficient to cover even their modest plans to renovate Chapel Hill High School and add a preschool facility at Lincoln Center.

According to estimates discussed at the meeting on Tuesday, option D would raise property taxes on a $500,000 home by $47 a month. Another scenario in discussion, option C2, would be slightly less expensive—$36 a month—but would not have the transformative impact of option D.

Three CHCCS school board members—George Griffin, Riza Jenkins, and Rani Dasi—spoke at last night’s meeting in full support of option D or, failing that, option C2. As is often the case at BOCC meetings, no one else spoke on the proposal.

The BOCC will decide on a bond within weeks

No decision was made last night, but the county commission is planning to revisit the issue this Friday, when the commission has a full-day retreat, and will make a final decision by the end of the month. At last night’s meeting, a number of county commissioners expressed support for finally addressing the poor state of our school buildings, but were hesitant to call for spending what it takes to actually make a difference.

Only Jean Hamilton expressed full support for option D.  Earl McKee, who represents northern Orange County and is the most conservative of the seven county commissioners, ruled it out entirely. Others were on the fence, in part because they were concerned that Orange County voters wouldn’t support such a bond. The conversation quickly devolved into a rehashing of the longstanding tensions between southern and northern Orange County. Meanwhile, our nine-year-olds attend schools with HVAC systems that catch on fire.

Does Orange County value its schools?

Do we really want to live in a community that was willing to use county funds to buy a sports complex with an ice skating rink and three swimming pools but asks school teachers to put out buckets when it rains? Are we really a county that is willing to sacrifice tax revenue to protect the rural buffer, but thinks that it’s not worth $2 a day to make sure our children learn in buildings that are safe? How can we secure a better future for our young people if we can’t fix schools that have been in disrepair for decades?

This November, we will all be voting in what we expect to be a critical election. The future of our nation, and our state, is at stake. We might also have the opportunity to vote for a bond that will finally address our county’s school building needs.

But only if our county commissioners put it on the ballot. Write the county commission and tell them that we need to fix our schools now. Let’s put option D—a $630 million bond—on the ballot in November. Here is a sample letter you can use.

Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...