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.

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.

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.

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.

Gay Fairy Tale Sparks Controversy at Efland-Cheeks Elementary

Matthew Roberts is the parent of two children at Efland-Cheeks Elementary. He says the recent controversy over a book about same-sex marriage took him by surprise.

“I am very surprised at how the opposition has taken off on this. I was not expecting it to get this far out of control,” says Roberts.

king and king

Last week, some parents protested a third grade teacher’s decision to read King & King, a fable aimed at elementary-aged children in which two princes fall in love and get married.

The teacher, Omar Currie, says he chose to read the book to address classroom bullying of a student. The message of the book is to accept people for who they are.

Several parents brought their concerns to the Orange County School board earlier this week, and at least three formal complaints have been filed.

In the wake of the controversy, Currie has said he will leave the school at the end of the school year.

Efland-Cheeks Principal Kiley Brown says as parents filed formal complaints, that triggered school policy which says a parent can object to material being used in the classroom and that administrators will review that material. Brown says the media review team examined the text and determined that King & King was appropriate. Since the initial complaint, two other complaints have been filed, which means that the fairy tale will go through review on two more occasions.

Roberts has one child in Currie’s class, and another who Currie taught last year. He says the teacher’s departure would be a huge loss for the district.

“In my opinion they are losing a tremendous teacher,” says Roberts. “My concern is we may not even be able to convince him to stay and the district will lose a great teacher. He has worked wonders with my two boys.”

More broadly, as a white parent who has adopted and fostered bi-racial children, he’s worried that the school could lose sight of key values he says made his family feel welcome.

“The biggest thing is to emphasize that we see Efland-Cheeks’ diversity, and their acceptance of diversity, as the strongest attribute that school has to offer.”

The teacher, Omar Currie, spoke Thursday with WCHL’s Blake Hodge. Listen to their conversation.


Roberts met with Principal Brown to discuss his concerns and he says he was heartened to learn that most parents aren’t opposed to the content of the book, so much as the timing.

“The most positive thing that came out of this was that the majority of the parents who have contacted her are not opposed to the teaching of the subject of same-sex partners,” says Roberts. “They feel that it could have been presented to them ahead of time so they had an opportunity to prep their children on the subject. And that’s probably legitimate.”

The district will hold a public meeting Friday at 5:30 in the school library to address the questions raised by the fairy tale. Roberts says he’s hoping for a happy ending.

“I’m hoping that we can turn it around and get a positive light. Best case, we won’t lose Mr. Currie, but if we can’t stop that, make sure that we don’t lose other teachers because they feel they’re not being supported.”

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.

Orange County School Board Names New Superintendent

The Orange County Schools Board of Education has selected a Wake County educator to serve as the district’s new superintendent.

Photo via Wake County Public Schools

Photo via Wake County Public Schools

Dr. Todd Wirt currently serves as Assistant Superintendent for Academics in Wake County Schools. He has 16 years experience in public education, including teaching science and math to middle schoolers and serving as a middle school and high school principal.

The school board screened 40 applicants for the position. A statement to the press reads:

“The board was especially impressed with his focus on closing the achievement gap and implementing the school system’s strategic plan.”

Wirt implemented a 1-to-1 laptop initiative at Mooresville High School, similar to the initiative in place at middle and high schools in Orange County.

Wirt will step in to his new role in July, taking over from interim Superintendent Del Burns.

Make Up Days Announced for Orange County Schools

Traditional school students in the Orange County School System will add 20 minutes to the end of the instructional day beginning March 16, in a new plan from the Board of Education to make up for days missed due to winter weather.

April 29 will change from an early-release day to a full day. June 12 will be an early-release day and the last day of school. June 15 is an optional teacher workday.

Students at Hillsborough Elementary will also add 20 minutes to the end of the instructional day beginning March 16. March 16-19 in the spring intersession will now become school days.

April 29 will be a full day. June 5 will be an early-release day and the last day of school.

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?’”

Area Schools Operating on a 2-Hour Delay for Thursday

Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will operate on a 2-hour delay for Thursday, January 8.

Temperatures overnight are forecasted to drop to 11 degrees, with a wind chill of -3 at 7 o’clock Thursday morning.

The National Weather Service has issued a wind-chill advisory until 10 o’clock Thursday morning.