Lack of State Budget Puts Schools in Holding Pattern

The lack of a budget from the state legislature is causing problems for local schools.

Todd LoFrese, Assistant Superintendent with the Chapel Hill – Carrboro City School system, says there are many unanswered questions with the school year rapidly approaching.

“While, the General Assembly passed a temporary budget bill that allows the state to continue operations,” he says, “it doesn’t give us clarity around many of the things that we need to know about.

“And so it’s disappointing because it forces us to open school with a lot of unknowns.”

LoFrese says the highest priorities being put on hold by the lack of a budget agreement are salary increases, the driver’s education program, and funding for teacher assistants.

LoFrese says the assistants are critical for classroom success, in particular for the new teachers in the district.

“The misconception is that they just help out by making copies or collecting paperwork,” he says. “The reality is that they’re an instrumental support for our kids and for our students.

“And they support the teachers in so many different ways, whether it’s helping facilitate small group instruction [or] allowing a teacher to work with one group of kids while the teacher assistant is working with a different group of kids on a similar or different lesson.”

LoFrese adds the degree of variance between the two chambers of the legislature is making it very challenging to count on a certain amount of funding to go into the new academic year.

“The House and the Senate are in such different camps, in terms of their ideas around public education,” he says, “that it makes it very difficult to make assumptions about what the final product would be.

“Our approach, and we discussed this with the school board last month, is to hold on filling some positions at all of the school levels.”

Positions being held open include two teacher assistants at every elementary school district-wide and leaving some instructional support positions open at the middle and high schools in the system.

These positions operate on year-to-year contracts for employees. That translates to 22 teacher assistants who are awaiting word on whether they will have a position in the classroom later this month.

LoFrese says the district will accept enrollees in the driver’s ed program, but they will be alerting families a fee may be associated with the class if the funding is not provided by the state.

He adds once a budget is in place, the school system will work to act quickly to implement any changes.

“Depending on what those items are and where things end up,” he says, “we might be able to bring some people back right away.

“If it is on, perhaps, the more negative side, in terms of where things end up, we may need a Board of Education meeting before doing that.”

While there is a cloud of negativity and frustration with so many unknown factors leading into the school year, LoFrese says there is still excitement to welcome the students back.

“From the budget standpoint, it’s disappointing, and it’s discouraging,” he says. “Schools are having to organize and plan to do without services and support that we feel are really important.

“But in terms of the start of the school year, the kids and the staff all coming back into the buildings, it brings so much energy and so much excitement. Those smiling faces, the excited voices, the kids who are back from their summer vacation ready to learn, ready to grow – it’s a wonderful thing.”

The continuing resolution passed by the legislature will keep the government operating through August 31.

The first day of class in the Chapel Hill – Carrboro City School District is Monday, August 24.

2 New CHCCS Principals Approved

Two new principals were approved at the Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools Board of Education meeting on Thursday.

Coretta Sharpless was named Principal of Northside Eelementary and Bob Bales was named Principal of McDougle Middle.

Sharpless has served as the Assistant Principal at Northside since the school’s opening in 2013. She has also served as Assistant Principal at Estes Hills Elementary. Sharpless received her Master’s degree from UNC.

Bales has served as the Assistant Principal at McDougle Middle since 2012. He has also served as Assistant Principal, and a stint as Interim Principal, at Chapel Hill High.

Currently, 16 of the 20 CHCCS schools are led by principals who were hired from within the school district, according to officials.

The first day of classes in the city school district in Monday, August 24.

Latest Candidate Filing Info

The filing period for 2015 local elections opened up at eight o’clock Monday morning.

The latest official reports from the Board of Elections are listed below:

Chapel Hill:

Mayor: Mark Kleinschmidt*, Gary Kahn, Pam Hemminger.

Town Council (4 seats open): Lee Storrow*, Michael Parker, Paul Neebe, Nancy Oates, Jessica Anderson.


Mayor: Lydia Lavelle*.

Board of Aldermen (3 seats open): Michelle Johnson*, Damon Seils*, Bethany Chaney*.


Mayor: Tom Stevens*.

Board of Commissioners (3 seats open): Evelyn Lloyd*, Mark Bell.


Mayor: Glendel Stephenson*, Robert Huey.

City Council (2 seats open): Patty Philipps*, Everette Greene*.

Chapel Hill – Carrboro School Board (4 seats open): Annetta Streater*, Rani Dasi, Theresa Watson, Margaret Samuels.

The filing period runs through July 17. Election day is November 3.

*- incumbent

Senate Proposes to Scrap Driver’s Ed

The state Senate’s proposed budget would scrap the requirement that 15-to-17-year-olds have to complete driver’s education in order to get a learner’s permit. That would mean young drivers, like everyone else, could get a learner’s permit after the vision and multiple choice tests.

In place of driver’s ed., the proposed budget increases both the number of supervised driving hours required and the number of correct answers needed to pass the written driving test.

It’s a proposal that doesn’t sit well with Todd LoFrese, Assistant Superintendent for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

“We think it’s a public safety interest to make sure that students receive driver training,” LoFrese said. “It’s a public safety issue.”

Spruce Hill Republican Ralph Hise added the amendment after the Senate proposed to remove the $65 cap on driver’s ed. course fees and move driver’s education out of the public school system and into community colleges. The amendment, Hise said, is meant to ensure teens who can’t afford the drivers ed. fee or make it to a community college can still get a learner’s permit. LoFrese agrees with the sentiment.

“Not every county has a community college, and it’s difficult for students to get there,” he said.

But LoFrese says he hopes driver’s ed. remains both required and accessible to young drivers in public schools.

“Hopefully with the state budget process, it gets resolved and funding is provided for the program. But if it’s not, we need to be prepared to make the necessary changes,” he said.

The House has already passed its own appropriations bill. The two chambers and the governor will be in negotiations for weeks before they settle on a final budget.

Marble Maze Inspires Kindergarten Class

Many teachers will say their most important, and sometimes most difficult, job is keeping students engaged. That challenge has prompted one local kindergarten teacher to come up with an out-of-the box idea.

The covered-outdoor walkway outside Claire Ross’ kindergarten classroom at Estes Hills Elementary was the place to be on Friday afternoon as the group of young builders tried out their marble maze.

What started out as a project during the class’ fun-center activity, evolved into a massive structure of toilet paper rolls, duct tape, and masking tape – 318 toilet paper rolls to be exact.

Listen to the full story below:


Three months of work from enthusiastic five-year-olds resulted in a colossal zig-zag of four levels of the taped-together rolls.

Then came time for the trial run.

After a deafening countdown from 10, the marbles were off, barreling down the cardboard slope, dropping from level to level, accompanied with an enthusiastic “WOO” with each drop, and after a roughly 20-second trip….success! The marbles erupted from the other end of the tube, dinging a bell that had been set up as a finish marker, leading to celebratory screams from the group of youngsters.

After several runs, it was no longer just Ross’ “Rockets” in the breezeway, class after class came down to check out the kindergartner’s project.

Marble Maze_2

Ross says the best part of all of the hard work was all the children were engaged and learning without realizing they were doing schoolwork.

“That all of the children are working toward the same goal, and they’re all excited, and they’re all involved, and everybody is into it,” she points out as rewarding moments. “They’re all working, they’re all engaged, they’re all wanting to be part of the team that’s working on it at that time.

“They’re totally buying into it. They want to learn more.”

Ross says her class was able to accomplish a lot of their academic goals by putting them into this hands-on project.

“We’re working on addition, and we added together all of the smaller numbers,” she says. “Then they used writing because they’re writing about what they were doing and explaining their ideas.”

Ross adds Estes Hills is working toward more STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) projects, and the marble maze incorporates many of those aspects.

For all of their hard work collaborating, all of the classmates got teamwork awards.

And the group of five-year old builders who learned what it means to be an engineer may have a new career aspiration.

Ross videoed the students throughout the project and created this documentary:

School Boards Ask Commissioners To Spend More Per Pupil

The two local school districts presented their 2015-16 budget requests to the Orange County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

The commissioners will take this information and decide how much money to allocate to each district. The county projects it will have about $94 million, about half of the county’s general fund revenues, to fund both school systems.

As compared to last year, Orange County Schools requested $81 more per pupil and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools requested an additional $302 per pupil.

Commissioners Board Chair Earl McKee said the “per pupil” dollars must be the same for both school systems, and an additional $302 per pupil would require a 3.5 cent property tax increase.

“Three and a half on top of the two cents last year is a fairly significant tax increase in a two-year span,” said McKee. “Our citizens, particularly those who have not had wage increases themselves over the last few years, are going to be impacted by that fairly heavily, particularly those that are on fixed incomes.”

Orange County Schools is requesting a county appropriation of $28 million. Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools is requesting an appropriation of $47.5 million in county funds. A significant chunk of the projected revenue for Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools, $22 million, would come from a special district tax.

The state projects Chapel Hill-Carrboro public schools will have 150 fewer students in 2015-16, and Orange County public schools will have 170 fewer students.

“Do you have any sense on why the enrollment is declining?” Commissioner Mark Dorosin asked Del Burns, Interim Superintendent of Orange County Schools.

“The opening of a new charter school last year did have impact,” said Burns. “Orange County Schools lost about 125 students to that charter.”

The county commissioners will hold a 7pm budget work session on May 14 at the Whitted Building in Hillsborough.

The boards also discussed next year’s $125 million bond referendum to repair and renovate school buildings. On April 21, the commissioners voted to focus the bond package solely on repairing school buildings.

 2015-16 Numbers

Orange County Schools Estimated Student Population: 7526
Orange County Schools County Funding Request: $3652 per pupil

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools Estimated Student Population: 12,203
Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools County Funding Request: $3873 per pupil

Charts from Orange County Schools.

Charts from Orange County Schools.

CHCCS Budget Request Includes Higher Minimum Wage

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board is including a higher minimum wage for school employees in its 2015/16 budget request to Orange County.

The proposed budget would set a wage floor for CHCCS employees of $12.76 per hour, which is the current minimum wage for Orange County government employees.

Board member James Barrett wants to do more than include minimum wage in the budget.

“Are we going to bring living wage back as a separate policy?” Barrett asked at Thursday’s board meeting. “There are dollars in the budget, but is that going to be a policy discussion as well?”

Barrett said creating a living wage policy would ensure that future boards consider this topic as they discuss budgets. He said the policy could incorporate inflation into the minimum wage calculation.

Board Chair Mike Kelley said that the board could discuss that in the future, but no date has been set for this policy discussion.

Kelley also brought up something commissioners are considering in county living wage policy.

“Contractors: How do you handle them? Can you require them to pay a living wage? Can you favor them in some way? So I agree, there are policy decisions to be made,” said Kelley.

The board approved the budget request 6-1, with James Barrett dissenting, in part because the budget asks the county to pay for additional charter school students. He said this is not a strategic move because the commissioners have to divide money between the two school districts, and the Orange County Schools’ charter school population is underrepresented.

The school board will now submit the budget to the Orange County Board of Commissioners. And on April 28 the CHCCS Board and the Orange County Schools Board will each present budget requests to the commissioners.

CHCCS Board Approves 10-Year Plan for School Repair and Maintenance

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools seeks funds from Orange County every year to pay for costly repairs and maintenance. At Thursday’s school board meeting, school officials talked about making difficult choices with finite funds from the county.

“We know we’re pushing back critical needs further and further. You guys remember we had the heat issue at Estes Hills,” said Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese. “We pushed off replacing the boiler 10 years in our plan, and it came back and bit us and we had problems last year at Estes.”

At the meeting, the board approved a capital investment plan that lists major projects, estimated at $15.9 million over the next five years. These costs align with the county’s projected funds for the school district. But the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district may not recieve all the money it wants.

“We’ve had a terrible, terrible last six or seven years,” said School Facilities Director William Mullin. “You’ll remember over the last decade we’ve added three schools, mobile classrooms and additions. We grow and our capital plan is being badly, badly hurt.”

Orange County Commissioners will divide 2015-16 funds between Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in the summer.

Among other projects, in 2015-16 CHCCS officials want a cooling tower replacement, light fixture replacements and classroom upgrades.

CHCCS board members also hope commissioners will put a $125 million bond on the ballot in 2016 to pay for additional expenses. The proposed bond would be the largest in Orange County history and would add an estimated 4.67 cents on the property tax rate.

“We’re making some choices right now in what our priorities are based on the expectation that this is going to happen,” said Board Member Michelle Brownstein on planning for the bond.

The district would like the extra funds to help pay for new buildings and school expansions to meet increases in student enrollment at an estimated cost of $214 million over ten years. The funds would also help pay the estimated $91 million in other maintenance costs over the next ten years.

School Superintendents Talk Over State Budget Cuts to Public Schools

The number of public school students in North Carolina has increased by more than 48,000 since 2007-08, yet the state funding level for public schools has decreased by $100 million. That’s according to last year’s report from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

On Tuesday night at North Carolina Central University, a panel of superintendents from four area school districts discussed how changes in the state education budget impact their districts.

Tom Forcella, superintendent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said the recent economic recession impacted state education budgets across the country. But, he said, other states have renewed their support for public education.

“There doesn’t seem to be the will on the part of our state leaders to really turn this around,” said Forcella. “I think that if we had that will and that desire, and the people of North Carolina really voiced their concerns, I think we can turn this around.”

In 2012-13, the sources of funding for North Carolina public schools were:

State 62%
Local 26%
Federal 12%

“Orange County provides the highest per pupil appropriations in the state of North Carolina,” said Del Burns, Orange County interim superintendent.

A study from the nonpartisan Public School Forum of North Carolina shows that Orange County leads spending in the state with $4,100 per pupil in 2012-13.

Local chapters of the League of Women Voters sponsored the event, and Wynetta Lee, Dean of the School of Education at NCCU, moderated the discussion with the four superintendents:

Del Burns, Orange County interim superintendent;
Tom Forcella, Chapel Hill-Carrboro superintendent;
Derrick Jordan, Chatham superintendent and
Bert L’Homme, Durham superintendent.

In addition to discussing the state’s role in funding public education, the panel discussed technology in schools and how charter schools are impacting public school funding.

Charter schools are exempt from regulations traditional public schools must follow; charters don’t have to provide transportation or meals for students. Critics say charter schools, which receive public funds, draw resources away from traditional public schools.

“Folks leave us for a reason,” said Burns. “Sometimes they’re running to something. Sometimes they’re running from something. And I don’t believe charter schools will go away. The question of Orange County Schools now is, ‘What would it take for Orange County Schools to be the first choice for families in Orange County?’”

Report: CHCCS Discipline Disproportionately Impacts Minority Students

In Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, an African American student is five times as likely as a white student to get in-school suspension, five times as likely to get out-of-school suspension, and three times as likely to get sent to the office. That’s according to an official school district report that looks at discipline data over the past two academic years.

At Thursday night’s meeting, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board member Jamezetta Bedford said we have to be careful in interpreting this data.

“All that shows you is that the risk for ISS (in-school suspension) discipline reaction is five to one,” said Bedford. “You can’t assume the child deserved it and did those actions.” She said some teachers and administrators may discriminate in whom they choose to discipline.

White students make up about half the district’s student population, and black students are 11 percent of the population. According to the report, Latino students, who make up 14 percent of the student population, are also disproportionately disciplined.

Aggression, defiance and disruption rank as the most common infractions among all students. The report says the largest disparities between white students and black students are in vaguely worded infractions, like disrespect.

“Disrespect was one of the hardest things for teachers to define,” said Nancy Kueffer, the school district’s behavior support coordinator. “So we’ve decided that we don’t want that on our office discipline referral form.”

Kueffer said the district needs to update policies and rewrite the code of conduct to clearly define infractions. She said the district should also help teachers think about the function of students’ misbehavior. This can help the teachers see behavior patterns and respond based on those patterns.

Board member Annetta Streater worries that seeing this data could strengthen stereotypes and cause teachers and administrators to racially profile students.

“I am concerned about this information – for it to be shared with some authority figures, administrators or whomever,” said Streater. “It definitely gives an idea based on comparing demographic groups.”

“It can be thought of that way or it can be thought of that the school is not meeting the needs of those students,” said Kueffer in response. “If we don’t have the data there, we can’t have that discussion . . . ‘Well why is that happening there? And why would it be any different for any kid of color?’”