Funding Gap in CHCCS Board Plans for New Construction

CHCCS assistant superintendent for support services Todd LoFrese talked about ideas to fill a funding gap for the new construction at Lincoln Center and Chapel Hill High School at the school board meeting last Thursday.

The board authorized a budget of almost $1.4 million for both projects at a previous meeting but have since exhausted the budget they had received from the county.

Since the board is waiting to see if Orange County voters will approve a record $120 million school bond in November, LoFrese said there aren’t many options.

“We have two options. One would be to stop the design work until the bond passes. The other would be to authorize additional funding to continue the work,” LoFrese said.

LoFrese said he would rather front the money with the district’s fund balance and get reimbursed once the bond is approved in November.

To continue the designs the board would have to allocate approximately $350,000 each month until November.

LoFrese said he spoke with the county manager and financial staff about the reimbursement idea and they agreed the plan could be feasible.

LoFrese said this plan would be similar to design work that was done for Northside Elementary School, although the reimbursement funds ended up not being needed due to timing of the approval for that bond.

“At that time, I think there was about an eight-or-nine-month window that we needed and both the board and the county adopted a reimbursement resolution that allowed us to get started on design work on Northside Elementary, and receive reimbursement from the county,” Lofrese said.

The major concern with this idea is the possibility of the bond not being approved, but the board did not seem concerned toward that issue at the meeting.

The board supported Lofrese’s idea to move forward with creating an official plan for this funding and bringing it to the next meeting for an official vote from the board.

The next meeting for the CHCCS Board will be held on Thursday, September 29.

700,000 Minutes Of Reading? That’s The Goal At Northside Read-A-Thon

Northside Elementary School is holding its second annual Read-a-Thon.

This year’s theme is “Reading is Magical.” The Read-a-Thon is a weeklong event – it began with a kickoff event last Thursday – with two goals: to encourage kids to read and to raise money for the Northside PTA. (In keeping with the theme, school officials transformed the library into King’s Cross Station from the Harry Potter books – complete with handmade magic wands.)

Principal Cheryl Carnahan has challenged the students to read a combined total of 700,000 minutes. Each individual student has a goal of 1,000 minutes – that’s about an hour and a half of reading per day for the 10-day Read-a-Thon.

Carnahan and PTA member Claudia Fernandez spoke with WCHL’s Aaron Keck last week.


If the school meets the combined goal, Principal Carnahan will also perform a challenge suggested by the students. (Suggestions so far include swinging from the rafters and kissing a snake or a pig.)

CHCCS Officials Already Worried About “Loss Of Jobs” In 2014

CHAPEL HILL – As your kids prepare to go back to school on Monday, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School officials say they’re preparing for another tough budget cycle in the coming year–and they say it’s not going to be pretty.

“If additional funding doesn’t come in from Raleigh, we’d need to find the equivalent of about 30 teacher positions within our current operations,” says CHCCS assistant superintendent Todd Lofrese. “(That) would likely mean loss of positions, loss of programs, perhaps loss of jobs.”

School officials are already sounding the alarm about 2014 because they say the district’s fund balance has dried up. CHCCS has used that balance for several years to help offset the effects of state-level budget cuts–but Lofrese says that isn’t an option anymore.

“We’ve reduced our budget by $8 million, and we’ve absorbed over $4 million in cost increases over the past five years,” he says. “It would’ve been even worse if we hadn’t utilized our fund balance to help buffer these reductions–(but) we’ve now used all of our available fund balance.”

And so, heading into the budget development process for 2014-15, Lofrese says “we’re beginning with what we estimate to be a $2.2 million hole.”

That $2.2 million represents the money the district pulled out of the fund balance this year to avoid having to cut teacher positions. Without it, Lofrese says they may have to cut 30 positions in 2014. Teacher assistant positions could also be at risk: Lofrese says the district lost state funding for 25 TAs, and managed to preserve those positions in 2013 only by dipping into its own pocket. (Should that come to pass, Lofrese says the district would seek to cut vacant positions first—but layoffs are not entirely off the table.)

And Lofrese says the situation would be even worse, were it not for the strong support the district receives from county government.

“We’re very fortunate (that) we live and work in a community that has strong support for public education,” he says. “Our county commissioners continue to demonstrate that by providing the district with $4 million in additional funding this year.”

Lofrese says that funding enabled the district to fully staff the new Northside Elementary School while preserving existing programs–and even managing to reduce class sizes in fourth and fifth grade. Future county-level funding will also allow the district to preserve a few of the 40 teacher positions cut at the state level, even without the fund balance.

But the specter of state-level cuts still looms—and while Republicans in the General Assembly insist that this year’s budget actually increased funding for K-12 education, Lofrese says that simply wasn’t the case in Chapel Hill-Carrboro.

“Even after accounting for the elimination of the discretionary reduction, our district received less money from the state this year than we did last year, despite our enrollment increase,” he says. “I know there’s a lot out there in the media about whether public schools are getting more money this year or less money this year–we received less state money this year.”

(Other districts did see an increase in state funding, but Lofrese says even that increase wasn’t enough to keep up with the growth in the number of students.)

The effects of the budget cuts aren’t only felt in the loss of positions. Teachers in North Carolina have received only one small raise in the last five years, and this year’s budget also cuts pay increases for teachers with master’s degrees—and as a result, Lofrese says districts across the state are finding it harder to recruit and retain quality teachers.

That includes Chapel Hill-Carrboro.

“Just a few weeks ago we lost a great math teacher to Kentucky,” Lofrese says. “That teacher’s making $10,000 more in Kentucky than they would have made here, on the North Carolina salary schedule. We have a great local supplement, (but) despite our local supplement they’re making $6,000 more in Kentucky than they would have if they’d joined our district.

“That teacher would have had to work in North Carolina for 16 years to make the same amount of money they’re making in Kentucky this year.”

And in spite of the slowly improving economy, Lofrese says he doesn’t see the school funding situation getting better in the future.

“I don’t see the tenor changing anytime soon,” he says, “so we’re planning that budgets are only going to get worse at the state level.”

Still, as schools across town prepare to reopen on Monday–and Northside Elementary prepares to open for the first time–Lofrese says there’s still much to be grateful for.

“We’re excited to welcome kids back and to begin that whole process of teaching and learning that starts on Monday,” he says. “Monday’s a great day for a lot of folks across our community–especially the little ones.”

Monday marks the first day of school for CHCCS; the budget development process for 2014-15 begins in about a month.

Social Media Uses In Local Gov’t Vary

CHAPEL HILL – As technology becomes increasingly important in today’s society, several branches of the local government are turning more to social media to communicate with the public—but some officials are still cautious about making the shift.

For the Chapel Hill Police Department, Sgt. Josh Mecimore says officers are primarily focused on using Twitter instead of Facebook for up-to-the-second news.

“In the past, we’ve kind of put out the same content on both services,” he says. “Moving forward, I think you’ll see more of the current events and up-to-the-minute kinds of things on Twitter, and then we’ll use Facebook for more of the information about ongoing investigations, trying to elicit information from the public, and more detailed information about things we’re doing around town.”

Mecimore says the CHPD’s Twitter page seen particular success when it comes to traffic enforcement announcements.

“When we put out that our traffic enforcement is out doing doing speed enforcement or stop sign violations in a particular part of town, that’s one of the things that gets re-tweeted the most by people,” he says. “That seems like it’s of great interest of people, and they want to send it out to their followers so that they know we’re doing speed enforcement somewhere and we’re not trying to hide it.”

But unlike Chapel Hill, the town of Carrboro hasn’t set up social media sites for law enforcement.

“The town has a Facebook and Twitter account, but there’s not a separate one for the police department at this time,” says Lt. Chris Atack of the Carrboro Police Department. “So, if there’s any sort of information that needs to go out about upcoming events or other public safety issues, we usually use those two outlets.’

Still, Atack says the idea isn’t off the table for some point in the future.

“It’s been an avenue we’ve been looking at for a period of time because there are obviously departments in the area that have Facebook presence specifically, and there’s certainly usefulness in that application,” he says. “So that’s something we’re exploring.”

For the Town of Hillsborough, Facebook has been a useful tool in the apprehension of suspects. According to the town’s website, in March 2012, officers started using Facebook to request tips from the public—since that time, 14 posts have resulted in suspect identifications or arrests. Facebook tips have also led officers to recover numerous stolen items.

Meanwhile, in the educational branch of local government, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board member James Barrett says while social media can be valuable, it’s not without its risks.

“I think the biggest risk is that it’s very easy to say something that could be taken out of context,” he says. “As is the case with really all electronic communication, there’s no tone, so people lose that perspective on what’s being said.”

The Chapel-Hill Carrboro City School district does have both a Twitter and a Facebook page, but Barrett says right now, the board’s members are leaving most social media projects to district Executive Director of Community Relations Jeff Nash.

“I think Mr. Nash is certainly cognizant of trying to communicate with people more, and so I think he’s looking for ways to do that, but I don’t think it’s been a serious push of the board.”

But Barrett, who recently wrote a blog post on the growing role of social media in local governments, says he acknowledges the importance of social media for the district, especially for sharing images.

“I think particularly our Facebook presence allows us to share photos,” he says. “It’s been great for people to see pictures of things like Northside Elementary going up, for example. We’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

Walk Zones Top CHCCS Thursday Agenda

CHAPEL HILL – The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board will revise the walk zones for several neighborhoods when the board meets Thursday.

The redistricting associated with opening the new Northside Elementary and converting Frank Porter Graham into a magnet school led administrators to review the current walk zones.

Neighborhoods must be no more than a mile and a half from school to qualify as a walk zone. Households in those neighborhoods are not eligible for busing to and from school.

Potentially impacted neighborhoods include Elliot Woods Apartments, Culbreth Ridge, Spring Valley and Webbwood.

The school board meets at 7:00 p.m. in Council Chambers at Town Hall.