As the Chapel Hill Town Council eyes new residential development at Obey Creek, Glen Lennox and in the Ephesus-Fordham area, officials from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system want to be sure there’s space available if new students move in.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese told the Town Council on Wednesday that district schools are nearing full capacity.
“We currently have about 12,100 students in the district,” said LoFrese. “You can see that we’re close to full.”
He added school officials are projecting enrollment numbers will continue to rise.
“While we do have some breathing room at the elementary level that was created when Northside opened earlier this year, our projected growth rate shows that we’re growing at about 1.5 percent annually at all three of the levels, so in the next few years, all school levels will be at or above 100 percent capacity.”
Using the current projections, LoFrese said a new elementary and new middle school will be necessary by 2020 and Carrboro High School will need to expand in 2023.
Compounding the problem, LoFrese told the council there are few sites left in the district that are suitable for new schools. A site near Morris Grove could be the home of the next middle school, and the next elementary might be built at Carolina North or on the Greene tract north of Homestead Road.
Land across from Southern Village is earmarked as a potential school site, but that’s also where East West Partners is looking to build the 120 acre Obey Creek mixed-use project.
Currently, potential school sites are designated within the town’s comprehensive plan and any developer seeking a special use permit or SUP for one of those locations must ask the school board to release that site. But with the Town Council considering a variety of new development approval methods that sidestep the SUP process, administrators worry the school board might lose that power.
“I know that there are various development processes that are being considered, whether it is a negotiated agreement or a form-based code process,” said LoFrese. “The [school] board is going to be considering a resolution that requests the Town Council to honor the spirit of the potential school site process, regardless of the type of development process used.”
The school board also wants to make sure developers using form-based code or a development agreement are required to seek a Certificate of Adequate Public Schools from the district to ensure there’s room in the school system to accommodate residential growth.
There’s some controversy, however, about how the student generation rates are determined for new developments in the post-recession economy. Apartments and condos are projected to bring fewer students to the district, but lately, LoFrese said the results have been unpredictable.
“The East 54 project has 254 units. Generation rates expected 37 students out of that project. We actually only have two,” said LoFrese. “However, look at Chapel Watch Village. Chapel Watch Village, off of Eubanks, has a total of 120 units. We expected 21 students and in reality we got 46.”
LoFrese told the Council the school district is working on a two-pronged approach to address the question of future school capacity. In the short-term, the board has asked Orange County to commission a new study to update the data on student generation rates for new residential development.
A larger, more expensive plan is to renovate the district’s oldest schools to add capacity. While that would cost upwards of $100 million dollars, it would delay the need for $57 million worth of new school construction. Orange County leaders are discussing a possible bond package to cover the cost of some school renovations, but that might not make it to the ballot until 2016.
In the meantime, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board will consider a resolution on Thursday night asking the Town Council to keep school sites, and school capacity, on the table during upcoming development negotiations.