CHCCS Seeks Boost From BoCC For School Renovations

Chapel Hill-Carrboro school officials plan to ask county commissioners for three quarters of a million dollars to jump start planning for major renovations at three schools.

“We’re recommending that the board consider a request to county commissioners for $750,000 in planning money, to begin the process of designing the projects so that we’re shovel ready if and when the bond referendum occurs,” said Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese.

Administrators are hoping to delay the need for new schools by instead expanding some of the older, smaller schools in the district, but LoFrese told the board the timing of the renovations will be key.

“The intention behind this whole recommendation is to delay new schools,” said LoFrese. “We can only do that if we begin creating capacity now, because the district is going to grow and before you know it we’re going to be at a position where we’re unable to phase projects, unable to move forward with some of these capacity-building recommendations at our elementary schools specifically. It would basically be too late.”

County commissioners have begun discussing a possible bond package to help pay for the multi-million dollar plan, but that may not make it to the ballot until 2016.

The school board voted unanimously on Thursday to request $750,000 from the county to cover planning and design for three projects.

The money would pay for architectural design and preparation to expand Ephesus Elementary and Seawell Elementary, and renovate Lincoln Center to create a preschool facility.

If approved, the money would be an advance from county’s Capital Investment Plan. The school board will discuss the proposal at a joint meeting with county commissioners on April 29.

Smaller Gifted Ed Budget Cuts Still Draw Fire From CHCCS Parents

Parents who thought the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board had backed off plans to make budget cuts to the district’s gifted education program were disappointed Thursday night to find some cuts were still on the table.

“These target AIG program cuts will ultimately bring down our district’s ACT and SAT scores as well as university placement,” said Kim Ehrman, one of eight speakers protesting the newest proposal before the board. “Will you be here to witness the result of your academic cleansing as our district embraces mediocrity?”

The school district faces a $3.6 million dollar shortfall next year. Earlier in the budget process, the school board considered cutting half a million dollars from the gifted specialist program, which would result in the loss of seven and a half full time positions.

In response to a slew of negative feedback from parents, the board last week opted instead to ask county commissioners to cover the entire $3.6 million dollar budget gap.

However, recognizing that county leaders are unlikely to fully fund that request, the school board on Thursday considered a second list of possible budget cuts totaling $821,000. Under this revised scenario, the gifted education program could still face a $214,000 cut, resulting in the loss of three specialists.

Board member Andrew Davidson said the budget represents their best effort during tough times.

“We’re not making these cuts because we want to get rid of these programs or because we have other priorities we want to slide our money towards,” said Davidson. “We’re making them because we have to.”

Once again board members including Mike Kelley sought to focus attention on the actions of the General Assembly.

“What we’re seeing here is an assault on public education,” said Kelley. “I wasn’t necessarily wanting to say that so frankly, but that’s clearly what is happening. Our response to this has to be as a community.”

Kelley called the budget cuts “a shared sacrifice,” and he urged members of the school community to avoid infighting over scarce resources.

The board endorsed the list of proposed cuts, but said the budget negotiation process is not yet complete. The board will present its budget request to county commissioners on April 29.

CHCCS Board Looks at New, Less Painful Ideas for Budget Cuts

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education is looking at a new list of budget reductions, after scrapping a plan to immediately take a big chunk out of the gifted specialist program.

At last week’s meeting, the School Board abandoned a planned $2.9 million budget request to the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

That figure included nearly $910,000 in recommended cuts. More than half of those were from gifted specialists.

Advocates for gifted specialists raised an outcry, and members of the board had their own doubts.

After much deliberation, the school board voted to request $3.8 million from Orange County, without the recommended cuts.

That was done with the understanding that the chances of getting that total amount were very slim.

So plans were made immediately to come up with a new list of reductions, based on consultation with parents and staff from all schools in the district.

At Thursday’s meeting of The Board of Education, members will consider a new list of immediate cuts of around $821,000, plus ideas for future cuts.

A list of recommendations from the office of the Superintendent includes making smaller cuts to gifted specialists; reductions at the Central Office; reductions from North Carolina Virtual Public School; and a cut to start-up funding for Northside Elementary.

The goal is to eventually find $2.2 million in cuts, in order to deal with reductions in state revenue. Big cuts in gifted specialists, as well as teacher assistants, may still be on the horizon.

Thursday’s meeting of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education will be held at 7 p.m. at the Lincoln Center, located at 750 South Merritt Mill Road in Chapel Hill.

CHCCS Officials Ask Town Council To Save Room For Schools

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.

CHCCS Board of Education Nears Decision on Gifted Specialist Cuts

The Chapel Hill- Carrboro City Schools Board of Education may be making big cuts to gifted specialists in classrooms.

Thursday night, the board will consider a budget request to Orange County Commissioners that includes a reduction of $902,852.

More than half of that money will come out of the gifted specialist program to assist teachers with academically gifted students.

The reduction would mean that each elementary school would have just one full-time equivalent gifted specialist; and each middle school would have half of that.

Gifted specialists already employed at Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools would not be terminated, but would be re-assigned.

Chapel-Hill-Carrboro Schools began the 2014-2015 budget process in a $2.2 million hole.

The fund balance used for three years for operational expenditures is now gone; and the General Assembly has cut back on a significant amount of revenue.

The school system’s central office will absorb $100,000 in reductions. Half of that will come out of salaries.

Startup funding for Northside Elementary will be reduced by $25,000, now that the school is open and operating.

Reserve funds for North Carolina Virtual Public School will be reduced by $150,000, after the school system took a hard look at online enrollment numbers.

The meeting is at 7 p.m. at Lincoln Center, located at 750 South Merritt Mill Road in Chapel Hill.

OC Leaders, Public Debates Use Of Common Core Standards

As a state-wide debate on the controversial Common Core Standards continues, Orange County state and local leaders believe that the recently adopted system has merit and that both students and teachers need time to adjust to the more rigorous academic goals.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education member, James Barrett, was one of about 50 speakers who shared their opinions about the Common Core Standards during a state legislative committee hearing.

The committee, which began meeting in December, has been charged with tracking and evaluating the progress of the standards in North Carolina classrooms.

“Common Core is a tougher set of standards. It is a set of standards that are needed for our children to succeed in life,” Barrett said.

Already used in 45 states, North Carolina adopted the standards in 2010, though they were fully implemented during the 2012-2013 school year.

Under the Common Cores Standards, school districts and teachers still decide how their curriculum is taught, but with the understanding the material is expected challenge students to develop an in-depth knowledge of key concepts.

State House Representative Graig Meyer, who also serves as the Director of Student Equity and Volunteer Services for the CHCCS, listened on as the public and various groups shared a wide range of viewpoints during the committee meeting.

One private educator called the Common Cores Standards “insidious.”

“We heard a lot of opinions about the Common Core today. Unfortunately, a number of them were strongly ideological in nature. We really need to approach the Common Core as a practical issue about what are the best standards and how do we provide the best education for students. I really get disappointed when educational debates get caught up in political ideology,” Meyer said.

When CHCCS released the Common Core Standard test results last fall, district leaders warned that the numbers would not be good. Officials said students and teachers needed time to transition to the new system.

“We have to find a way to provide teachers with the time to be able to learn the new standards and to plan the curriculum that they want to choose to use in their classrooms to help students meet those standards,” Meyer said.

Barrett suggested that school districts take a year off from the most rigorous testing.

“That pressure to just do well on a multiple choice test is detrimental to our students’ learning,” he said. “I think one of the things we could do is to say, ‘You know what—we are in the middle of this. It is a transition, and we need to take a pause on some of the testing.”

Barrett said he believes that Common Core helps ready students for college and beyond, which he said aligns with the practices that CHCCS Superintendent Tom Forcella and the district try to achieve in their classrooms.

“Regardless of whether Common Core is here or not, these are changes that we do, as a District, believe in and that we need to be moving forward with,” Barrett said.

Opponents of the standards have argued that the transition timeline has moved too quickly and that teachers need more training to instruct under the new system. Others have said that it is a form Federalism that gives the U.S. government too much say-so.

CHCCS Teachers Reject State-Mandated Contract Changes, Ask Board For Support

CHAPEL HILL- Chapel Hill-Carrboro educators are rejecting the changes to teacher tenure mandated by the General Assembly, and they want school board members to do the same.

Deborah Gerhardt was one of 40 parents and teachers who came out to Thursday’s Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education meeting to demand the board condemn the state-mandated changes to teacher tenure.

“I am basically here to plead with you to stand behind the parents and the teachers in this district and help us to voice how horrible we think this law is and how insulting it is to our teachers,” Gerhardt told the school board.

Wearing red to show support for education, the crowd asked the district’s elected leaders to take a firm stand against the new state law that will do away with career status for teachers, instead offering four year contracts and a $500 bonus to 25 percent of teachers while the rest get year-to-year contracts.

In an effort to sidestep the competitive aspect of the new law while still complying with the mandate, Chapel Hill-Carrboro administrators offered qualified teachers the option of volunteering for the new contracts instead of being ranked by school officials.

Human Resources Director Arasi Adkins said this opt-in policy would prevent teachers from feeling like they were vying against their peers for job security and extra pay. Superintendent Tom Forcella agreed, noting district teachers help craft the policy.

“Our opt-in model, I think, makes a statement in and of itself that we don’t agree with this particular law and the whole concept of merit pay.” said Forcella. “

But teachers throughout the district have resoundingly rejected the proposal. Adkins said of the 800 educators eligible to opt in, only 10 decided to do so.

Instead, the parents and teachers at the meeting said they want the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system to join the growing number of school districts that are protesting the loss of teacher tenure.

The Guilford County and Durham County school boards have each voted to join a lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop the changes from being implemented, while the Wake County school board adopted a three-page resolution asking the legislature to repeal the new law.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board members said they stand behind the districts teachers, but worry that joining the lawsuit could have unintended consequences, as the legislature could choose to appoint new board members if the district did not comply with state law.

“Unfortunately, in this state, the legislature holds all the power,” said board member Mike Kelley. “The local governments, including school boards, have none that isn’t granted to them by the legislature, and the legislature can take that away at any time.”

Kelley and other board members urged the audience to focus on voter outreach to change the make-up of the General Assembly.

School board members also indicated they would consider a resolution condemning the new state law while still offering four-year contracts to the handful of teachers who opt in. The board could consider that measure at its next meeting on March 20.

CHCCS Facing $45 Million In Unfunded School Repairs

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board approved a 10-year spending plan on Thursday totaling $16.8 million, but members acknowledged the Capital Investment Plan does not include an estimated $87 million in unfunded needs, including $45 million worth of basic repairs to the district’s 10 oldest schools.

William Mullin, Executive Director of School Facilities, told the board that $45 million would bring the aging schools up to current safety and accessibility standards, but would not increase student capacity.

Without modifying existing schools to add room for more students, administrators estimate the district will need a new elementary and middle school by 2020, at a projected cost of $80 million.

Mullin told commissioners the district is receiving about $800,000 annually from the quarter cent sales tax approved by voters in 2011. Half of that is earmarked for technology needs, the rest for repairing older schools. While that will add up approximately $8.8 million by 2024, Mullin said it is not nearly enough to address the district’s needs.

The school board will discuss aging facilities and school capacity at its planning retreat on Tuesday. Administrators will present the capital plan to the Board of County Commissioners later this month.

Burroughs To Run For BOCC

CHAPEL HILL – In a press release Tuesday evening, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board member Mia Burroughs confirmed she’ll be running for a seat on the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

Burroughs will run for the Democratic nomination for the seat currently held by Alice Gordon, who’s stepping down at the end of her term. That seat represents District 1, which essentially covers Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Burroughs is the first Democrat to announce her candidacy for that seat.

Burroughs is in her second term on the school board, where she’s served as both chair and vice-chair.

Click here for her campaign website.

The filing period begins next week for those interested in running for local and state office. Burroughs says she’ll officially file on Tuesday, February 11.

Local Leaders Rally To Keep PACE Academy Open

CARRBORO- Lisa Gangarosa is the mother of a ninth grader at PACE Academy. She says her family was shocked to hear the Carrboro-based charter school might have to close its doors this summer.

“Of course it is creating a lot of anxiety,” says Gangarosa. “Since my daughter’s only in the ninth grade, she’s very worried about where she would go next year if PACE is not open.”

PACE Academy opened in 2004 to serve high school students with learning disabilities or behavioral problems who have not succeeded at traditional schools. More than half the 169 enrolled have been identified as special needs students.

This December, the state’s Charter School Advisory Board recommended to the North Carolina Board of Education that PACE not have its charter renewed, which would force the school to close at the end of this school year. The CSAB report cited testing noncompliance, fiscal irregularities and low academic performance.

Joel Medley directs the state’s Office of Charter Schools. In a letter regarding the advisory board’s recommendation, he writes:

“These members heard the concerns and thoroughly interviewed representatives from PACE Academy. Based upon the responses provided by the PACE representatives, they unanimously recommended that this school not receive a renewal; and a unanimous recommendation is a rather strong statement.”

Medley says representatives from his office met with PACE administrators four times in 2012, but school officials were not responsive to the department’s concerns.

However PACE Principal Rhonda Franklin, in a letter to the State Board of Education, calls the renewal process “fundamentally unfair.”

She argues the school should not be faulted for its 51% graduation rate because many students struggle with autism, mental health issues and learning disabilities. She said it s not uncommon for students to attend PACE for five or six years to master basic life skills.

“By looking only at PACE’s graduation rate, without considering its mission, the concentration of special needs students and their practice of keeping students in school until they are prepared to leave, transforms one of PACE’s strengths into a weakness. It is tantamount to measuring a square peg with a round hole.”

In response to questions about student enrollment and the school’s financial stability, Franklin writes:

“Once PACE was notified of problems in any area, the school worked diligently to correct the deficiencies. There is no evidence of a “history of non-compliance.’”

Since the advisory board’s recommendation was made public, local leaders have been rallying in support of PACE Academy.

Last month, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella agreed to write a letter to the state Board of Education in support of PACE Academy.

In his letter, Forcella praised PACE for working with students facing learning and behavioral challenges, and promised greater collaboration between the public school system and the charter in the future.

Board Chair Jamezetta Bedford noted PACE has had problems in the past, but nonetheless, she agreed the board should support a school offering some an alternative path to graduation.

“These are kids who really need a different program and who need support,” said Bedford. “These are kids who have already failed in our high schools; they have already chosen to go to another school. Not all have failed, but many of them have, so anything we can do to help kids graduate, let’s do it.”

Carrboro Aldermen voted unanimously last week to support PACE Academy in its bid to stay open beyond this school year. Randee Haven O’Donnell stressed this support only extends to PACE, not to the recent push to expand charter schools statewide.

“It’s really important for folks in the community to know we’re not supporting charter schools in general, we’re supporting PACE Academy in its continuance,” said Haven-O’Donnell.

State House  Representative Graig Meyer also added his name to the list of local leaders who support PACE. He says in his work with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School system he’s seen that PACE offers a good fit for students who don’t always thrive in the public school environment.

The State Board of Education will vote in February to decide if PACE Academy stays open.

In the meantime, the Gangarosa family and others are left pondering their options.

“My daughter really enjoys going there and I feel like staff really does go the extra mile to help struggling students,” says Gangarosa. “We’re just taking one step at a time. We haven’t really thought about what our alternatives for next year are.”

You can find more about the renewal process for PACE Academy here.