School funding debate at forefront of local politics

In this September 2016 photo, students at Hawfields Middle School engage with a NASA scientist online. Alamance County Commissioners are currently putting the finishing touches on its 2017-18 fiscal year budget. Alamance-Burlington School System leaders and employees are imploring the elected officials to consider fully funding the ABSS school system through a series of public hearings and meetings 

“I think it’s up to us to grasp the future. To recognize the responsibility, that we have in our own generation, to move ahead.” 

—-John F. Kennedy, on the 1960 Presidential campaign trail

In the fall of 1958, a heated debate ensued within Alamance County regarding a proposal for a $6.5 million school bond.

In a stunning announcement that early autumn, the Alamance County Board of County Commissioners informed local residents that the county would be forced to raise property taxes by as much as 30 cents per $100 of assessed value, unless a school bond referendum was passed to bring local schools up to standards.

According to the county's website, Alamance's tax rate in 1958 was $1.40 per $100 of assessed value - nearly three times what it is in 2017. 

“Negligence and passiveness regarding school needs will result in poor education in quality and in quantity, when our times demand both additional quality and quantity,” the late Dr. L.E. Spikes, Superintendent of the Burlington City Schools, said at the time. 

The talking points nearly sixty years ago are remarkably similar to the same talking points today, both in favor of — and against — supporting public education in Alamance County. 

On the morning of Sept. 23, 1958, a large advertisement was splashed across the front page of the Burlington Daily Times News

Titled, ‘Is More Money The Answer?’ and paid for by ‘a group of property-owning citizens for conservative government,’ the ad included a variety of figures suggesting the county would be saddled with nearly $17 million in debt if it went through with the school bond. That’s $144.5 million in 2017 dollars. 

Despite the objections, on Saturday, Sept. 27, 1958, Alamance County voters approved the bond. The result of the 1958 school bond was the construction of three area high schools — Southern Alamance High School, Western Alamance High School, and Mebane’s own Eastern Alamance High School — along with multiple middle and elementary schools around the county. 

Today, more than a half-century after they were constructed, Southern, Western, and Eastern High Schools are not only still in operation, but utilizing many of the exact same spaces as classrooms, offices, gymnasiums, and cafeterias that they were when first opened. 

That’s a good thing. Schools are designed to last a very long time. And it’s a testament to the quality of school construction in the early 1960s that the facilities are still standing and thriving all these years later. 

Here’s the problem, though. 

There were 2,100 white high school students in Alamance County in the fall of 1958, and approximately 600 African-American students. Today, there’s nearly ten times that many students across the country attending Alamance-Burlington schools. 

A quarter-century ago, in 1992, Eastern Alamance High had approximately 659 students. 

In 2016-17, enrollment at Eastern High surpassed 1,100 — far more than anyone could have ever envisioned back in 1958. 

The Alamance-Burlington School System has spent millions over the years in basic maintenance to keep the facilities accessible to students. But the time has come for a large overhauling of the county’s older facilities if they are going to be used for several more decades, as anticipated, and to accommodate ever-growing student expansion. 

Along with approving a redistricting plan that includes a new high school in the Hawfields area in the coming years, as well as extensive remodeling of some of the older existing ABSS schools that will require a bond referendum vote, the ABSS Board of Education approved an ambitious budget for 2017-18. 

The nearly $47 million budget included raises for teachers, principals, assistant principals, and bus drivers, while also allocating resources for specialized programs, digital learning, and capital projects. 

“This isn’t a time to hold back, as we’ve seemed to have done for years. We need to be leaders,” Commissioner Bob Byrd said. “I said that I would promise to keep our tax rate reasonable and comparable to similar counties. Fiscal responsibility means investing wisely. Education is an investment that will generate the most returns of anything.”  

“There is one benefit mentioned in the Constitution of North Carolina. Just one. It’s education,” Glen Raven CEO Allen Gant said to the Commissioners at its May 16 session. “If we are serious about world-class education, then we need to make it the No. 1 priority in this community. Without education, we have poverty. Without education, we have crime.”  

Unfortunately, many of the very people opposing the ABSS budget increases today are individuals who attended Alamance County schools when they were at their newest and most modern. 

Gant put it directly to Commissioner Bill Lashley, a former classmate at Burlington’s Turrentine Middle School in the early 1960s. Turrentine Middle was completed in 1961 as part of the same school bond that produced Southern, Western, and Eastern High Schools. 

“Bill, I think you and I were in the first class that went to Turrentine,” Gant said to Commissioner Lashley. “You and I walked into the door, coming from Broad Street. Last year, the connector between those two buildings was condemned. How embarrassing for us to have a building that we have children in, that was condemned because it was falling apart.” 

“All I can say is that you and I, Bill, had a better chance,” Gant added. “It’s time for you to dig deep, and support this educational budget 100 percent. Don’t cut it a penny.”

In response to ABSS’s budgetary requests, County Manager Brian Hagood announced a proposed county budget for 2017-18 that provides ABSS approximately $41 million — approximately 15 percent less than what it asked for.

On the evening of Monday, June 5, members of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing. Approximately 500 spectators, almost all in favor of the ABSS budget, crammed into the auditorium at Williams High School in Burlington. 

After all the public speaking and debate, the Commissioners voted 3-2 to support the budget as proposed. Commissioners Tim Sutton, Bill Lashley, and Amy Scott Galey voted in favor of the budget, while Commissioners Bob Byrd and Eddie Boswell voted against it.

Though Alamance County earmarked over $3 million in extra funding over its 2016-17 budget to fund ABSS for 2017-18 — an increase of approximately 8.22 percent — the figure remains nearly $6 million below the more than $9 million in extra funding the school board requested.

The only addition to the original budget was $500,000 in capital improvements, which school officials responsible for the maintenance will tell you is a mere Band-Aid compared to the millions in necessary repairs countywide. 

Before we move any further, a little backstory. 

My wife and I moved from Durham to Mebane in the summer of 2013. We found our dream home in the Longmeadow subdivision along Old Hillsborough Road in Mebane. 

We were thrilled about the fact that we were paying roughly the same in property taxes for a home worth more than double in value compared to the one we had just sold in Durham. 

Our home has been increasing in value since the day we bought it — though we don’t intend on selling anytime soon.  

As an actively-licensed Real Estate Broker in our state, I attribute the increase in our home’s value to three primary factors — the tremendous growth of Mebane south of the I-40/I-85 corridor, the construction of a new Fire Department less than a mile from our home, and the local schools. 

My two children, Colt and Jenna, are two of the lucky ones. They will attend a modern public school — Garrett Elementary School — with modern amenities. Colt’s Kindergarten year has been fantastic. His teacher, Mrs. Renee Dixon, has been wonderful.

They are fortunate because we just so happened to move into the elementary district in Mebane that just so happens to have one the newest schools in the entire county, opened in the fall of 2000. Unfortunately, other elementary, middle, and high school students throughout Alamance County aren’t so lucky. 

The fortunate thing for Alamance County residents is that property taxes have been so low for so long, the county could raise taxes for ABSS schools with a very minimal effect on the pocketbooks of local citizens. 

The efforts of men like Commissioners Lashley and Sutton to keep Alamance County’s property taxes low are, quite frankly, one of the big reasons why my family settled in Mebane. 

Through their combined 40-plus years of service to the people of Alamance County, they’ve kept the county’s taxes the lowest in the entire region. 

However, the time has come to seriously consider incremental tax increases in order to meet our obligations to keep Alamance County’s schools competitive. As politically inconvenient as it might be. 

In 1985, Alamance County’s property tax rate was 54 cents per $100 of assessed value. More than three decades later, the tax rate has only gone up four cents. After falling to 50 cents in 1986, the tax rate had crept up to 53 cents in 2000 before getting slashed to 43 cents in 2001. It had crept back up to the current rate of 58 cents a decade ago before another slash to 52 cents in 2009. 

“We’re at 58 cents right now. A 58 cent tax rate is the 28th-lowest property tax rate in this state,” Commissioner Bob Byrd said. “The median tax rate (statewide) is 67.7 cents. We’re way below median.” 

“In fact, if you look at all the counties that touch Alamance County, the next-lowest besides us is Chatham County. They’re at 63.38 cents. So we’re over five cents lower than the next-lowest county. Guilford, which is one of the counties we really compete for (teachers with). We lose half our teachers to Guilford and Orange Counties. Guilford’s tax rate is 75 1/2 cents. Orange’s is 87.8 cents.”

“Even if we just went to 62 cents – that’s four cents more than we have now — four cents on a $150,000 home is $60 bucks a year. Five bucks a month,” Byrd added. “If that’s the kind of money that we’re talking about, I’m for it. I’ll vote for the whole thing. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to cost to fully fund (ABSS). I think whatever it is, we can afford it. We can’t afford not to fully fund it.”

Personally — and I know full well I’m not speaking for everyone here — but to pay an extra $120 to $150 bucks a year, so every child among the more than 20,000 students attending an ABSS school can attend a school system fully equipped with a Strategic Plan to handle their educational needs, is an easy call. 

Not just for the welfare of my children and other children. For the welfare of my property values, the property values of my neighbors, as well as all Mebanites and Alamance County homeowners.  

Real estate values are directly affected by the quality of local schools. The better the schools, the better the local property values. 

The extra two or three thousand dollars I’d pay in taxes over the next couple decades to fully fund education in Alamance County is a drop in the bucket compared to how much my home should increase in value over that time. 

I attended public elementary, middle, and high schools all the way through. People paid taxes for me to be able to attend quality schools. Taxpayers helped subsidize my education at UNC-Chapel Hill as well, which has given me a chance to provide for my family. That’s why I’ll be supporting education, and the necessary occasional tax increases that come with it, long after I have children in the ABSS system. 

The same goes for my wife, Julie, who currently works in the ABSS system. 

Like so many dedicated professionals across our county, Julie truly cares about the children she works with. 

She brings their problems home with her. She spends her off time developing lesson plans and strategies to improve their educational growth. She spends her own money for materials for them. 

She laughs when she talks about them. Sometimes she cries when she talks about them. She's proud of them. 

They remain with her long after she’s worked directly with them. As she was reminded this spring as her first group of Pre-K children from the 2003-2004 school year are graduating from high school this month. 

While we support the rights of all parents to make individual choices for their children’s education, whether it’s through public, private, or home schooling, we’ve made our own personal choice. 

Our children will attend ABSS schools all the way through.

For the social interactions. For the real-life challenges and triumphs that come through the halls of public schools. And yes, for the education. 

In the final analysis, fully funding the needs of the ABSS school system shouldn’t be a partisan political issue. It’s a matter of doing what’s right for the children within the county. 

It’s often said that you can’t have it both ways in life. But the financials bear out quite clearly that we can have it both ways in Alamance County. We can fully fund our school system, and still maintain the lowest property tax rates around.

The Alamance County Commissioners missed their opportunity with the 2017-18 budget to make a real stand for public education.  

But with public pressure likely to intensify during a midterm election year in 2018, when Commissioners Amy Scott Galey and Bob Byrd will both face the county's voters in the fall, the debate certainly won't be going away.  

I fully understand that some people resent paying any taxes at all, whether it be for public education or anything else. These individuals have a right to feel this way, and I won’t waste much more space trying to convince them otherwise. 

I would just say to those individuals that I have great faith in young people.

They deserve the tools and the knowledge to succeed in a competitive world. And I’m certainly willing to put my own money where my mouth is to better support their futures.