Merging Orange County School Districts Not ‘Worth the Squeeze’

While our community works to find a way to provide housing options to every family that would like to live Orange County, former Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt brought up an idea during the WCHL Community Forum that has been volleyed about in our community before as a potential solution.

Kleinschmidt said that merging the Chapel Hill – Carrboro and Orange County School Districts would alleviate some of the pressure on housing “at least between northern and southern Orange.”

Kleinschmidt said he thought that the benefits of merging the school districts would go beyond helping to provide more affordable housing.

“I think that would have enormous impact not only on housing prices,” Kleinschmidt said, “but I also believe it would have an impact on our ability to address the achievement gap.”

When speaking, Kleinschmidt cited former Orange County Commissioner Moses Carey, who brought up the idea in the early-2000s.

Current Commissioner and former Chapel Hill – Carrboro City School board member Mia Burroughs said she would support that idea, under certain circumstances.

“I would feel very strongly that we should merge if I felt that we had a severely disadvantaged school district among the two,” Burroughs said. “But I don’t think we’re there.”

Chapel Hill – Carrboro Superintendent Tom Forcella said that, while the school districts remain separate, there has been an increased level of collaboration between the two.

“I think the gains we would get, maybe, out of merging or consolidating, I think a lot of those things can be addressed if we really get creative and think about the things that we can share and do together.”

Orange County School Board chair Donna Coffey said a study was commissioned in 2001 that said merging the districts would raise the cost to Orange County residents as a whole.

“The study revealed that it would not save dollars and cents if you will,” Coffey said. “Because in order to merge the districts, state statute says you have to lift the per-pupil spending to the higher of the two districts that you merge.”

Coffey said the study said that would result in a “significant” tax increase, adding “at that time it was 18 to 20 cents, I believe.”

“Moses Carey was cited in the earlier conversation as being the one who brought this up,” Coffey said. “And I will quote Moses saying, ‘the juice’ at that point ‘did not appear to be worth the squeeze.’”

http://chapelboro.com/featured/merging-orange-county-school-districts-not-worth-the-squeeze

School Boards Prepare To Present To County Commissioners

Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will present their 2016-2017 budgets to the Orange County Board of Commissioners in a meeting Tuesday night.

The presentation will be the next formal step for CHCCS, in its attempt to get approval for an additional $4.5 million to its budget for the next school year.

The county commissioners make the final decision on the budgets for the school districts in the county.

The additional money in the CHCCS budget will go towards increasing teacher pay.

In North Carolina, teachers are given a base salary mandated by the state, but individual school districts provide a supplement to that salary.

CHCCS has already approved increase its supplement for new teachers from 12 percent to 16 percent, meaning that no matter what the county commissioners decide, the school system will still have to pay the additional $4.5 million.

Members of the Board of Education said that although the move is risky, it was done to make CHCCS more competitive for recruiting and retaining top teachers.

Wake County increase its teacher supplement to 16 percent last year, which is what prompted CHCCS to change its policy.

Board members said they needed to formally make the change before getting approval from the commissioners because this time of  year is recruiting season for new teachers and they wanted to make sure they made their best offers to potential candidates.

The meeting will start at 7:00 p.m. at the Southern Human Services Building.

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/school-boards-prepare-to-present-to-county-commissioners

Commissioners To Hold Public Hearing On Upcoming Bond

The Board of Orange County Commissioners will be taking public comment on the upcoming bond Tuesday night.

It will be the first of two public hearings on the bond which, if passed in November, will be the largest in county history at $125 million.

Up to $120 million dollars is planned to make necessary health and safety upgrades to Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. This would be the first step in acquiring the funding needed to finance over $300 million in repairs.

Another $5 million dollars is expected to go towards affordable housing.

The meeting will begin at seven p.m. at the Southern Human Services Building in Chapel Hill.

A second hearing will be held in Hillsborough May 5 at the Whitted Building, which will also begin at 7:00 p.m.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/commissioners-to-hold-public-hearing-on-upcoming-bond

Commissioners Reject Proposal To Hire Contractor For Bond

Orange County could be issuing a bond worth up to $120 million to go to both Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools after the elections in November.

Because this would only pay for a fraction of the estimated $330 million the systems have said they need to make necessary repairs and upgrades, commissioner Barry Jacobs said he wanted to hire an independent contractor to make recommendations on how the money should be spent.

“Since we’re the ones who are going to be approving the $120 million, I thought it was an important thing for us to feel comfortable with what was recommended,” he said. “That it met certain criteria that we all generally agree are important.”

The proposal was unanimously rejected in their meeting Tuesday night , with Jacobs himself voting against it.

The contractor was estimated to cost between $38,000 and $43,000. Chairs of both boards of education addressed the commissioners and stated their opposition.

Orange County chairwoman Donna Coffey said three years ago her board spent over $250,000 to study the issue.

“Our board has spend countless hours diligently reviewing and analyzing the results of these studies, knowing a future bond referendum would only offer us a limited amount of money,” Coffey said. “We wanted to ensure that our students, our teachers, our families and Orange County taxpayers got the most juice for our squeeze.”

After doing these studies, both boards of education shared their recommendations with the county.

Commissioner Mia Burroughs, who is a former member of the CHCCS board of education, said she saw no reason to hire the contractor.

“School boards are duly elected by the exact same people who elect us,” Burroughs said. “I think it would be duplicative and not necessary in any way to open that back up and question the priorities that they’ve made and started to invest in.”

Before the county is allowed to issue the bond, they will first have to get the public to approve it when it appears on the ballot in November.

“Just from a practical point of view I don’t see it working to have a consultant,” said commissioner Bernadette Pelissier. “The work wouldn’t be done until the end of June, then we’re on break, which means we couldn’t even discuss anything until September and then you’re supposed to have a campaign going.”

The board will hold public hearings on the bond April 19 and May 5.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/commissioners-reject-proposal-to-hire-contractor-for-bond

Orange County Schools Superintendent and Middle School Receive Awards

Orange County Schools Superintendent Dr. Todd Wirt has been named the 2016 Outstanding Young Educator by the North Carolina Association for Supervision and Curriculum.

Wirt began his job as superintendent on July 1, 2015.

“Everything that I’ve thought about Orange County has been affirmed and more. We are excited about the work that’s going on and is ahead,” said Wirt.

Orange County Schools Superintendent Todd Wirt. Photo via Orange County Schools.

Orange County Schools Superintendent Todd Wirt. Photo via Orange County Schools.

The award is given to an education professional under 40 that makes an exceptional contribution to the profession.

Wirt had success in several school districts around the state before coming to Orange County but he humbly credited the people he has worked with for the award.

‘I’ve had great mentors and I’ve had great colleagues over the years and the award is just a representation of that,” said Wirt.

Gravelly Hill Middle School in Orange County Schools has also been awarded the 2016 Lighthouse School Award. This award is given to a school that shows student achievement and innovative teaching methods.

That award also made Wirt proud. He has a child at Gravelly Hill and has a close professional relationship with their principal.

“I had lots of pride yesterday on several levels, not only for our school system but as a parent and as a friend and colleague of our Principal Eric Yarbrough,” said Wirt.

As for his goals for the future of the district, Wirt hopes to make Orange County Schools a career destination.

“That’s really the terminology that we are using. We are trying to look for some of those internal things that we could put in place that are wins for our employees,” said Wirt.

http://chapelboro.com/featured/orange-county-schools-superintendent-and-middle-school-receive-awards

Orange County School Board Fills 1 Vacancy Announces Another

Members of the Orange County Board of Education voted on Monday to appoint Dr. Millicent Rainey to fill the seat on the board left vacant when Lawrence Sanders resigned.

Dr. Rainey will hold the seat until July 1, 2016, according to a release. At that point, the winner of the March 15 primary will take office.

The release says Dr. Rainey retired after working in school system and was a member of the Community Visioning and Engagement Committee.

Board Chair Donna Coffey said in the release:

“Dr. Rainey, an Orange County native and graduate of Orange County Schools, has a longstanding dedication to all children. Her passion for public education will allow her to be a tremendous asset to the Board of Education as we move forward in our commitment of making Orange County Schools the first choice for families, teachers and staff.”

The board has also formally begun accepting applications to fill the seat left vacant by Dr. Debbie Piscitelli.

By law, to be eligible to serve as a member of the Orange County Board of Education, an applicant must have resided within the Orange County School System administrative unit for 30 days prior to the appointment, must be 21 years of age and must not be a felon or otherwise constitutionally disqualified.

All candidates interested are asked to submit a letter of interest and resume to, Dr. Todd Wirt, Superintendent Orange County Schools, 200 East King Street, Hillsborough, NC, 27278.

Applications must be in by five o’clock the evening of January 29.

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/orange-county-school-board-fills-1-vacancy-announces-another

Orange County Schools Board Chair Resigns

The chair of the Orange County School Board is resigning, less than a year after joining the board.

Dr. Debbie Piscitelli announced her resignation at a school board meeting this week. It’s effective immediately: board vice chair Brenda Stephens will take over as interim board chair, and the full board will select a new chair at its next meeting in December.

Piscitelli was first elected to the board in 2006 and served two terms. She decided not to run for re-election in 2014, but returned this March when board members appointed her to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Rosa Williams.

Piscitelli’s resignation leaves two vacancies on the seven-member board: Lawrence Sanders also resigned from his position less than a month ago. The district is already accepting applications to fill Sanders’ seat; the deadline to apply is December 2.

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/orange-county-schools-board-chair-resigns

Orange County Is Wealthy, But Poverty Still Widespread

Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in North Carolina, but poverty is still a major issue.

How widespread is it?

“3,820 children in Orange County live in poverty,” says Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson, quoting numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. “That’s a lot of children waking up in one of the richest counties in the state of North Carolina, in poverty.”

As of 2013, the latest available data, about 3800 Orange County children were living in poverty – about 13.4 percent of all Orange County kids. On the plus side, that’s down from a peak of 4800, or 17.4 percent, at the height of the recession in 2010.

“We’ve been bending down, and that’s really good news,” says Nelson.

But not every measure of childhood poverty is trending down. Nelson says the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch is still on the rise, in both of Orange County’s school districts.

“Orange County Schools (is) at 43 percent, up from 32 percent in 2006-07, (and) Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is also on the increase, from 21 to 28.2 percent,” he says. “This number is not showing that trend down in poverty.”

And while the number of families receiving food and nutrition services (food stamps) is down slightly, it’s still significantly higher than it was even in the midst of the recession. 6,087 Orange County families receive food stamps today – down from a peak of 6,533 in 2013, but virtually unchanged from four years ago and well up from 4600 in the middle of 2010.

“The recession is long over, and yet this number (has) continued to grow,” Nelson says.

Nelson says the recent decline is good news, but the long-term trend is still sobering. In 2007, prior to the recession, only 2,900 Orange County families received food stamps. That number has more than doubled.

Orange County’s overall poverty rate is 15.5 percent, slightly below the 17.9 percent rate for the state as a whole – and surprisingly, more than 23 percent of Chapel Hillians live in poverty. Nelson says the student population skews that data a bit, but “I don’t want to discount that we do have poor students too, who really are struggling to make their way through college or community college.”

And he says the percentage of children living in poverty is a reminder that this is a very real issue in our community, students or no students.

Nor is a decline in poverty necessarily an entirely good thing. Nelson says there’s a correlation between the improving economy and the drop in poverty – but correlation does not equal causation. Is Orange County’s childhood poverty rate declining because poor families are moving out of poverty? Or is it because poor families are simply moving out of Orange County?

Nelson says it’s not clear. But there is one more troubling statistic. In the year 2000, according to the Urban Institute, there were 1,839 housing units in Orange County that were available for “extremely low income” households – or households making less than 30 percent of the county’s median income. At the time, Orange County had about 6,000 households fitting that description.

As of 2013, Orange County still had about 6,000 “extremely low income” households – but the number of available housing units had dropped almost in half, from more than 1800 down to 1,022.

Nelson says we’re seeing that trend in every county in the region.

“And I did some math – do you know what your wage is if you make minimum wage, working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, you never take a vacation or a sick day?” he says. “It’s $16,500.”

Thirty percent of Orange County’s median income is $20,300 – so there are about six thousand households in Orange County making less than or barely over minimum wage (some of them students but not all), and the number of available housing units for those families has been shrinking rapidly for more than a decade.

Nelson made those comments last month, delivering his annual State of the Community report.

You can check out the full report here.

http://chapelboro.com/news/development/orange-county-is-wealthy-but-poverty-still-widespread

Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools Score Highly

A new set of grades are out for public schools in the Tar Heel state.

The State Board of Education released preliminary information regarding student performance based on a variety of measures on Wednesday.

Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools registered three Cs, 11 Bs and four As across the district. Meanwhile the state board graded Orange County Schools at one D, nine Cs and two Bs.

Diane Villwock is the Executive Director of Testing and Program Evaluation for Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools, and she says there were several highlights for the CHCCS system.

“100 percent of our schools received a grade of C or better,” she says. “And that compares to 72.2 percent of the public schools in North Carolina as a whole.

“The Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools met 87.2 percent of their goals, while the state met 55.2 percent.”

Villwock says the school system is proud of these accolades but adds there are areas the district can improve upon, mainly closing the achievement gap.

“Some of those targets are based on all sorts of groups,” she says. Those groups include race, economically disadvantaged students, limited English proficient students and students with disabilities. Villwock says, “It’s really important for us to raise the achievement of those groups in order to meet these state targets.”

Villwock says the work to close the achievement gap is a process that includes every member of the school district.

“We’re working, as a central office, getting things organized for teachers and setting up training,” she says. “And then small cadres of people are coming out for training.

“And those people are going back and training at their schools.”

The overall ratios of As, Bs and Cs for Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools was unchanged from last year, which was the first time the state board handed out letter grades to school systems. But three schools in the system were awarded a designation just introduced this year.

Carrboro High, East Chapel Hill High and Glenwood Elementary were awarded an A+ designation.

“The A+ is for schools who are both high performing and have very small achievement gaps compared to the state,” Villowck says.

While the numbers are useful in terms of setting and reaching goals, Villwock says the district would like to see the formula for the grades changed to place a larger emphasis on the growth of students from year to year, rather than the majority of focus being placed on test scores.

Villwock adds the high schools across the system had a very strong academic year.

“The five-year cohort graduation rate…was at 94.6 [percent], which is the highest in the state,” she says. “100 percent of our high schools met or exceeded growth.

“And we had 86 percent of our students meet the UNC System requirements on the ACT, and that was the highest in the state.”

Villwock says, while we are digesting this new data, it is important to remember the numbers can’t tell the whole story of school districts.

“The performance of teachers and relationships with students and how they impact kids’ lives all matter a great deal,” she says. “And those really aren’t measurable.”

You can view all of the school grades from across the state here.

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/chapel-hill-carrboro-city-schools-score-highly

OC Schools Cancels Hearing on Gay Children’s Book

Orange County Public Schools canceled the public hearing planned to discuss a gay children’s book. Parents complained after former Efland-Cheeks Elementary teacher Omar Currie read his third-grade class a story about two princes who fall in love.

Orange County Schools had planned the public hearing for parents and other members of the public to debate whether the book “King and King” should be allowed in school. Currie says he chose to read the book in response to homophobic comments one student made towards another.

“The whole ordeal of me reading the book in class lasted at max 20 minutes, and at no moment did I think that it would have risen to this level of public scrutiny or public interest,” Currie said.

Since Currie read the book, parent complaints have forced Efland-Cheeks to review “King and King” twice. After the administration OK’d the book a second time, one family appealed the decision to Orange County Schools, and the public hearing was scheduled. But Schools spokesman Seth Stephens says the hearing was canceled because the appeal has been withdrawn.

“The appellants have withdrawn their appeals,” Stephens said, “and as such the meeting has been cancelled, the school-level decision stands, and this matter is concluded.”

The matter is concluded—yes—but Currie, who submitted his resignation last week, worries the ordeal may be over only because Currie is no longer teaching in Orange County.

“The family who submitted the appeal was the same family who submitted a personal letter trying to get the school district to actually fire me,” Currie told WHCL.

The appeal was withdrawn within a week after Currie stepped down.

While Currie says he is glad the matter has come to a close, he says he’s disappointed Orange County won’t be forced to take a position.

“They have yet to take a position on the issue,” Currie said, “and they have yet to come to affirm that we do want our teachers in our building keeping students safe by reading literature that affirms diversity. And I think that’s kind of dangerous.”

Currie is in the process of finding another teaching job in the Triangle.

Blake Hodge and Elizabeth Friend also contributed reporting to this story. Our call to the family who made the complaint was not returned.

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/oc-schools-cancels-hearing-on-gay-childrens-book