Bonnie Hauser, my choice for county commissioner-at-large, brings a fresh perspective to many important issues we face. In her words and from her experience working on numerous issues in Orange County for more than a decade, here’s her proposal for the county to reprioritize spending to address school funding needs:
In my “previous life,” I was a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers, where I spent my career helping organizations become more efficient while improving customer service. Based on that experience and my work in our community, I believe that the same principles can be used to create a path to sustainable school funding for Orange County.
So, what are the issues associated with school funding? What steps can put us on a path to sustainable school funding?
Recent attention has been given to the needs for our schools and a possible voter referendum for bonds and increased taxes. I believe, however, that our real problem is that the county’s school funding formula is broken and needs to be fixed. That will take time, so I’ve offered ways to address short-term needs to alleviate immediate pressures and allow county and school leaders better plan for the future.
I’ve shared my ideas with leaders from both school systems, current and prior commissioners, and senior county staff. They all agree with my assessment: Business as usual is not working, and we can do better.
1. In the short term, commissioners can identify areas in which spending is not aligned with public need and make necessary cuts or changes. That includes eliminating non-essential items, consolidating county office space and redirecting funds slated for less urgent projects such as remote rural parks. Additional monies are available in the county’s well-funded reserves.
2. For the long term, we need a school funding policy that separates out buildings and maintenance, and funds them based on need, separately from the per-pupil allocation. This will clarify confusion around equity between the school districts and help the county anticipate long-term capital needs.
3. Also long term, we need to ask leaders from both school systems to work together to agree on a standard budget presentation and some simple measurements of performance to allow greater transparency – especially as both districts grow.
To me, this makes more sense than funding schools – capital and operating – based on a percent of property taxes. My approach will better prepare us for changing conditions such as population growth, curriculum changes and decreases in federal/state funding.
County commissioners can always choose to increase taxes to fund schools – with or without voter approval. The tradeoff is that Orange County is becoming less and less affordable, and our workforce, seniors and minority populations are leaving. I believe we can do better.
One last point: It’s easy to blame the state, but some of the problems are of our own making. Our facilities have been allowed to fall into disrepair, and urbanizing districts (Wake, Guilford, Mecklenburg) are all spending more to pay teachers and create excellence. Orange County needs to update its policies to adequately fund schools as a priority and give taxpayers confidence that we are preparing for the future.
Business as usual is not working, and sustainable school funding is one important way that we can do better.
Bonnie Hauser, candidate
Orange County Commissioner-at-large