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"With the kind of growth we've had in the last three years -- 12,000 new students -- keeping operating funding flat has done a disservice to the students," said Roberts. "I understand people want to be efficient and look for streamlining of middle management of the school system and that sort of thing, but the reality is that the cuts are affecting classrooms. Whatever it takes, we need to do to make sure classrooms are not affected and that the teaching remains adequate."
Democrat Wilhelmenia Rembert, a former school board chair who lost her race for re-election last year, supports more funding for schools, and said that the slow economic recovery may require a tax increase, but that she'll try to find ways to fund everything without increasing taxes first.
Like the Republicans, all three Democratic candidates say they want to address suburban overcrowding and continue to renovate and replace more urban schools simultaneously, though school system leaders have expressed doubts about their capacity to do both at the same time. All three believe that the county and the school system can work together to do it despite the costs and challenges.
"We have a crowding problem, we have an inequity problem," said Roberts. "It is something that I think is in danger of damaging our economic growth. We had decrease in white students in this system this past year and we need to put a lot of effort into it [the school system] now for the sake of everybody in this community. It is affecting our workforce and our quality of life."
Helms, too, thinks the school system will fall behind if it has to divide a limited pot of money between operating and building expenses, as the Republicans generally want.
"The tremendous population growth that is currently occurring in Huntersville and other suburban areas demands that we build additional schools for the surging numbers of students," Helms wrote. "At the same time, we must address the need to upgrade, expand and renovate many older school buildings. Construction to provide seats for additional students and construction/repairs to renovate and improve older school facilities are equally important."
Both Roberts and Helms are critical of the idea of running the county like a business and think supporting human services is important. Roberts likes the Republican plan to prioritize programs; she's just not so sure she's as wild about cutting funds for the ones that don't rank highly.
"It's a challenge to meet the service needs of a growing community when you have the explosive growth that we have without raising taxes so that you drive people away," she said. "The process of prioritization is a good one. I think what is a little unclear is does that necessarily mean that things that are a low priority don't get funded?"
Rembert says she's willing to try it until a better way of making budget decisions comes along.
The last few years have seen almost continuous sniping between the commission and the school board. All three candidates want to change that by improving the relationship between the two bodies.
"I think we need to have a summit between the county and the school board and maybe bring in people from the Chamber and make an effort to say this is a serious issue," said Roberts.
Contact Tara Servatius at firstname.lastname@example.org