BoCC Eyes Older Schools For Bond Referendum

HILLSBOROUGH- Orange County Commissioners on Tuesday signaled they may be willing to shift the focus of a proposed $100 million bond referendum.

In a prior discussion, the board talked about getting voter approval to finance a new jail, and a fifth middle school for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system. Those two projects alone total $73 million.

But school board members from both the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County districts say aging schools are badly in need of repair, and fixing those could cost as much as $230 million.

Commissioner Mark Dorosin said he’d like some guarantee from district officials that renovating older schools would increase student capacity, delaying the need for new buildings.

“I think if we’re going to put any money into the renovation of these older schools, which is much needed, I think we should demand that any renovation increase capacity, whether it’s in the middle school or the elementary school,” said Dorosin. “Whatever those plans are, that money should have as an additional benefit that it is going to push out the next elementary school, the next middle school, the next high school, whatever it is.”

If voters approve a $100 million dollar bond package, Assistant County Manager Clarence Grier told the board that could mean raising the tax rate by 4.18 cents for the next 20 years to cover the $6.7 million annual debt payments.

In order to get the referendum on the ballot for the November 2014 election, the school boards and commissioners must come up with a list of priorities by early June.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro administrators have already completed a detailed assessment of the district’s older buildings, while Orange County school officials have a study underway. County Commissioners will discuss the timing of the possible bond package at a meeting later this fall.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/bocc-eyes-older-schools-for-bond-referendum/

School and County Leaders Consider $100M Bond Referendum

CHAPEL HILL- Years of deferred maintenance are taking a toll on local schools, leaving county and school officials scrambling to figure out how to foot the bill.

“We have to have a different communication with the citizens. We cannot even afford this. We don’t have enough money to do this,” said Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Vice-Chair Jamezetta Bedford, speaking Thursday at a joint meeting of school board members and county commissioners. “The idea that we want new things and we want this new park or whatever, when we can’t afford to maintain what we already have is very worrisome.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school budget allocates $20 million in the next decade to repair aging facilities, but a recent evaluation of the district’s oldest schools school revealed that repairing or replacing those facilities could cost as much as $170 million.

Orange County School administrators are still in the process of inspecting that district’s schools. Initial estimates for renovation range between $20 million and $68 million, but school officials say those numbers are likely to rise as many of the county’s oldest schools are in the Orange County system.

Members of the two school boards and county commissioners came together Thursday to discuss a potential bond package to take to voters, possibly as early as November of 2014.

County commissioners are considering a $100 million dollar bond referendum to pay for a new county jail and a fifth middle school for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system, but that plan doesn’t yet include any projects to repair aging schools.

And with the jail and the middle school estimated to cost about $76 million, that leaves just $24 million to address what school officials say is a $230 million dollar problem.

County leaders hope to break ground on a new jail in the next four years, but Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board Chair Michelle Brownstein said the school systems can’t wait that long.

“My anticipation is that as more details come out about both Orange County schools and Chapel Hill schools, about the level of need at those schools, there’s going to be a greater sense of urgency,” said Brownstein. “There’s going to need to be evidence that we’re coming up with a plan. I don’t think it is reasonable to think that we’re going to be able to wait until 2016 to address our county’s school needs.”

The need for a new jail is also pressing, not only because the county jail is consistently overcrowded, but because the board recently signed a land lease with the state that mandates the county start construction within five years. Board of Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs said failure to do so would invalidate the lease.

“If we haven’t done what we need to by that time then we’re just out of luck,” said Jacobs.

Nonetheless, County Manager Mike Talbert warned commissioners their options may be limited.

“Right now, outstanding debt is $190 million dollars. You’re looking at proposals that would nearly double that in a fairly short period of time. There are going to be limitations,” said Talbert. “Our debt has to grow in proportion to our budget and to our population. There are very much limits on what we can do.”

Veteran Orange County school board member and former county commissioner Stephen Halkiotis said he’s worked on three bond referendums over the years. He told the assembled leaders not to get too worried this early in the process.

“It always starts this way, so don’t get flabbergasted, don’t get upset,” said Halkiotis. “The first reach is real high. Then you realize you can only get certain fruit from the tree. Then you get real practical.”

Commissioners will discuss the feasibility of a possible bond package at their October 8 work session.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/school-and-county-leaders-consider-100m-bond-referendum/

BoCC, Schools Boards To Discuss Facility Finances

ORANGE COUNTY – School and county leaders will meet Thursday to discuss a possible bond referendum to finance new facilities.

Orange County needs a new jail, while Chapel Hill-Carrboro school administrators are already beginning to plan for the district’s fifth middle school.

Combined, those two projects could cost as much as $72 million dollars.

In addition, both the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County school systems are facing steep costs to repair aging schools.

The school boards will meet with County Commissioners to discuss how to pay for both new construction and the restoration of older buildings. County staffers are exploring the possibility of putting a bond referendum on the ballot in November of 2014.

The boards meet Thursday at 7:00 p.m. in the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road.

AGENDA

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/bocc-schools-boards-to-discuss-facility-finances/

OC Schools BoE Chair Shares Thoughts On New Superintendent

ORANGE COUNTY – Donna Coffey, Chair of the Orange County Board of Education, says newly-named Superintendent Dr. Gerri Martin’s experience and strong communication skills make her the best fit to lead the school system.

Coffey says the Orange County Schools Board of Education reviewed 30 applications, with applicants from 11 states.

“Dr. Martin definitely stood out as the best candidate to our board,” Coffey says.  “Her credentials, her skills, her passion, her dedication, along with her experience just led us to believe that she will serve our students, our staff and our community for many years to come.”

Martin comes from the McDowell County Schools in Marion, N.C., where she served as superintendent. She’s been working in education for 27 years, including four years as Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction prior to her role in McDowell.

“She has worked at all levels in schools, from teaching on up through the central office administration, and she’s had a little bit more than a year’s experience being superintendent,” Coffey says.

Martin received her Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and Politics from WakeForestUniversity and is fluent in Spanish. Coffey says about 14 percent of Orange County Schools students’ are Hispanic

“I think she is just going to bring a whole other level to our non-English speaking students and their parents,” Coffey says. “She will help us lead the way in providing more services.”

Martin received a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership from Appalachian State University and continued her education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she received her Doctorate of Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations.

Martin succeeds Patrick Rhodes, who retired in June. Del Burns has served as interim superintendent and will remain in the position until Martin takes over sometime in October.

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/oc-schools-boe-chair-shares-thoughts-on-new-superintendent/

OC Schools Names Superintendent

ORANGE COUNTY – McDowell County Schools Superintendent Dr. Gerri Martin was announced Thursday night as Orange Schools’ next superintendent.

Martin has served McDowell County in Marion since July 2012. She’s been working in education for 27 years, including four years as Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction prior to her role in McDowell.

The Orange County Schools Board of Education reviewed 30 applications which came from 11 states. In a press release on Thursday, the board said Martin’s experience, credentials, strong communication skills, tenacious work ethic, and dedication to student learning makes her the best fit.

Martin got her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Politics from Wake Forest University. A few years later, she went on to Appalachian State University where she obtained her master’s of arts in Educational Leadership. She continued her education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she received her Doctorate of Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations.

“I am so humbled to receive the opportunity for this responsibility,” Martin said. “I come with great enthusiasm to serve the students, staff, and community of Orange County.”

Martin will take the position at a date to be determined in October.

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/oc-school-board-names-superintendent/

Orange County Wealthy On Average, But Poverty Still Lingers

Aaron Nelson and Chamber board chair Paige Zinn. Photo by Donn Young, courtesy of the Orange County Visitors Bureau.

CHAPEL HILL – Year after year, Orange County consistently ranks as the wealthiest in the state of North Carolina—but poverty, even here, continues to be a nagging and serious issue.

“There’s a big disparity between wealth, (and) there continues to be growth in childhood poverty,” said Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson at his annual State of the Community presentation this week. “That is (a statistic) that we need to pay close attention to.”

Orange County ranks first in the state with a per capita income of $48,683 in 2011, well above the state average of $36,000. But in spite of that, our poverty rate is also well above the state average: in 2011, 16.9 percent of Orange County residents were living below the poverty line, compared to 16.1 percent of all North Carolinians (and 14.3 percent of all Americans). The percentage is even higher in Chapel Hill alone, where 22.1 percent of residents lived below the poverty line in 2011.

“Some folks have often discounted that–(because they think) that’s just the student population…but our poverty level is high,” Nelson says. “We ought not to discount it simply because it includes students.”

For the first time, researchers this year were able to distinguish between students and non-students when analyzing wealth and poverty in the area. Students do account for much of the poverty rate in Chapel Hill—but that poverty rate is still elevated even when they’re taken out of the equation. About ten percent of Chapel Hill’s non-student population lives below the poverty line—a poverty rate that’s less than the state average, but still more than twice as high as nearby communities like Apex and Cary.

And the poverty rate increases when the focus is narrowed to children. “That is on the rise,” says Nelson, “and in a pretty serious way.”

The key increase is in the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” children, which is to say children who qualify for free and reduced lunch. 26.5 percent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School students and 41.6 percent of Orange County School students qualified for free and reduced lunch in 2011-12—the highest percentage in both districts since at least 2006, when the Chamber began collecting data.

And the high level of need in Orange County is at odds with the common perception of Chapel Hill as a wealthy community—a disconnect that actually makes it harder for governmental and non-governmental organizations to address the real need that exists.

“(It’s called) ‘Chapel Hill Syndrome,’” Nelson says. “Donors get this: it’s a belief that we don’t need anything, Orange County doesn’t need anything–we have the highest per capita income, the University’s there, the hospital’s there, your economy’s bulletproof–but the reality is that some of us feel that way and forget to reinvest and take a look under the rocks on what’s going on in our community with respect to poverty, particularly children in poverty.”

Nelson delivered his State of the Community report on Tuesday at the Friday Center. You can see the full presentation at this link.

http://chapelboro.com/news/business/orange-county-wealthy-on-average-but-poverty-still-lingers/

For Northside And FPG, New School Year Marks Dawn Of New Era

Northside Elementary School principal Cheryl Carnahan shows off the new building.

CHAPEL HILL – Students in Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools head back to school on Monday morning–and for two elementary schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district, the first day of the new year also marks the first day of a new era.

Frank Porter Graham Elementary School reopens Monday as a dual-language magnet school, the first in the district. “We’re delighted to be the district’s first magnet school,” says principal Emily Bivins, “and (we’re) looking forward to the opportunities in using bilingual education to close the achievement gap, particularly for students who historically have not been successful in our schools.”

FPG Principal Emily Bivins (in Northside library)

FPG Principal Bivins speaks at a press conference Thursday at the new Northside Elementary School.

More than 500 kids are enrolled at FPG, about half of which are new students in the district’s Spanish dual-language program.

Meanwhile across town, the new Northside Elementary School is finally open for business after years in the making–with 496 students enrolled and 80 employees on staff–and school officials like principal Cheryl Carnahan (formerly of Estes Hills Elementary) say they couldn’t be more excited.

Carnahan says Northside’s mission statement is “Thinking, learning, and growing, with purpose, persistence, and pride.” Purpose, persistence, and pride are joined by a pedagogical approach that’s eminently forward-thinking, while still nodding back to the past.

Northside principal Cheryl Carnahan 1

Carnahan speaks at Thursday’s press conference. (The sunbeam is intentional: Northside is designed to maximize natural light.)

A tour of Northside Elementary is striking: every facet of the new building is consciously tailored to be both eco-friendly and high-tech, from the placement of the windows to the design of the students’ chairs. Reflectors and skylights throughout the building maximize natural light to save on electricity; that electricity is channeled instead into a wide variety of state-of-the-art technology–including iPads (one for every two students), high-speed wireless Internet, and interactive whiteboards that also function as massive touch screens. (Chalk on a slate is ancient history.) Students sit on chairs designed to allow for wiggle room (they’re even comfortable for adults), and the teachers wear microphones to ensure sound quality.

Northside Elementary School classroom

Moseley Architects construction administrator Steve Nally (L) points out some key features in a Northside classroom.

“It’s a different way of thinking about technology,” says Carnahan. “Our focus is always on what (we can) do to collaborate, communicate, and create with our technology.”

But even as Northside looks to the future, it’s also making a concerted effort to stay rooted in its historic past. Its location at 350 Caldwell Street is also the site of the original Northside Elementary, which served as Chapel Hill’s elementary school for African-Americans prior to integration. That history is preserved on the first floor of the three-story building, with a commemorative wall, a trophy case, and a gallery of decades-old photos–a veritable museum of the Northside community’s educational history.

Northside Elementary history wall

The history wall, downstairs.

That history will make its way into the classrooms as well: Northside’s approach revolves around student-driven, “project-based” learning, and Carnahan says the first schoolwide project will focus on Northside.

“(The project) will be about 12 weeks and will start in October…building community and looking at the history of our school site,” she says. “The essential question is, how can we as historians document what has happened in the past, and use that for the present and project to the future?”

And since the school is seeking to look in two directions at once, it’s only fitting that Northside’s symbol is the compass–there are dozens of them on the walls, floors, even the clocks–and the team name is the Navigators.

Neither Northside nor FPG are opening without controversy, of course. In 2012, parents at FPG protested strongly against the school board’s decision to convert the school to a dual-language magnet—and earlier this year, parents across the district spoke out against the new redistricting plan, which moved a large number of students out of their previous schools to ease overcrowding and make way for Northside.

And as students across Chapel Hill-Carrboro return to class, school officials behind the scenes are still contending with another round of budget cuts at the state level–not to mention the threat of an even more difficult financial strain next year, when the district’s fund balance is projected to run dry.

Still, Monday is a day of pride and optimism for local schools–Northside, FPG, and everywhere–as thousands of Orange County students return to what remain two of the top-rated districts in North Carolina.

“It is going to be a great school year in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools,” says district spokesperson Jeff Nash. “It was a great year last year, and we have every reason to believe that despite anything you might see coming outside the Beltline, this (too) is going to be a great school year.”

Northside Elementary rooftop garden

Northside Elementary’s rooftop garden. (Yes, it has a rooftop garden.)

Northside Elementary cafeteria

Skylights abound in Northside’s cafeteria.

Northside Elementary Playground

One of Northside’s three playgrounds. (They’re divided by grade level.)

Northside Elementary Playground artificial grass

A closer look at the playground: that’s actually artificial grass down there.

Northside Elementary auditorium gym

Not far from the history wall, Northside’s gym/auditorium–complete with elevated stage–nears completion.

Northside Elementary School plaque

(No school is perfect.)

Northside Elementary exterior

The exterior of Northside Elementary School. (Note the light reflectors installed in each of the windows.)

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/for-northside-and-fpg-new-school-year-marks-dawn-of-new-era/

OC Schools Making Progress In Superintendent Search

ORANGE COUNTY – The search continues for the next superintendent of the Orange County School System.

Donna Coffey, Chair of the Board of Education, says Dr. Del Burns was named as the interim superintendent in July.

“We needed to give ourselves enough time to get qualified applicants in and go through all of the resumes, look at them, and choose who we wanted to interview,” Coffey says.

Burns served as the superintendent for the Wake County Public School System from 2006 to 2010. Coffey says Burns will remain in the position until a permanent hire is found.

“Our original schedule called for us to name a superintendent in September and we started the process in late July and are working through that right now,” Coffey says.

Former Orange County Schools Superintendent Patrick Rhodes retired on June 30; he held the position since 2007 and also worked as a school teacher or administrator in North Carolina for 30 years.

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/orange-county-schools-making-progress-in-superintendent-search/

Tax Hike For CHCCS District; OC Prop Tax Unchanged

CHAPEL HILL-Orange County Commissioners signaled on Thursday that they will hold the line on property taxes, though the CHCCS special district tax will go up.

The board won’t formally adopt the $187 million dollar budget until next week, but commissioners made it clear they want to keep the countywide property tax rate unchanged while still spending more money on public schools.

Looking ahead, some said that won’t be sustainable in the future.

“We have to keep in mind that this might be the last year that we’re going to go without raising taxes,” said Commissioner Penny Rich. “I’m not the kind of person who loves to raise taxes, but there’s a certain level of services that we expect in Orange County, and we can’t go year after year, especially with the school systems, and not raise taxes.”

The ad valorem tax rate will stay at 85.8 cents per $100 of assessed value for the fifth year in a row.

Last month, parents, teachers and administrators from both the Orange County and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools districts came out in droves to beg the board for more money to cover anticipated cuts at the state level.

In response, county commissioners dug into reserve funds to find $1.6 million in extra school funding, raising the per pupil allocation by $81 dollars for both school districts and generating approximately $1.6 million for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and $650,000 for Orange County Schools.

But that money is still not enough to open Chapel Hill’s new Northside Elementary. Commissioners agreed to raise the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax by two cents to generate approximately $2 million for the new school. The new rate will be 20.84 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Commissioners also allocated $49,000 in additional funding for a host of nonprofit organizations, and set aside a quarter of a million for something they dubbed the Social Justice Fund, a reserve account to help lessen the sting of state cuts to social programs.

“In a way it’s a commitment that this is something we consider important,” said Board Chair Barry Jacobs. “I think we all agree there are depredations being done to the social safety net. We want to try to address them and we know can’t address them all.”

The board will vote to formally adopt the budget for Fiscal Year 2013-2014 at a meeting on Tuesday, June 18.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/two-cent-chccs-district-tax-hike-while-oc-prop-tax-remains-steady/

BoCC Eyes CHCCS District Tax, Not Property Tax, For School Funding

CHAPEL HILL- Orange County Commissioners signaled on Thursday that they’re looking for more money to fund public schools, but they stopped short of supporting a countywide property tax rate increase.

“As much as I believe in a strong school system, raising the taxes, personally I believe we have to really have to take a deep look at that, because the rate of poverty is increasing so dramatically in Orange County,” said Renee Price.

In the past two weeks, dozens of residents have  come out to public hearings to ask commissioners to allocate more money for the school systems.

But some commissioners worried that those who can’t afford a tax increase have not had a voice in the debate. Penny Rich said she’s been hearing from residents who did not feel comfortable speaking out on the issue.

“They are very passionate about schools but they just can’t afford any more taxes,” said Rich. “We can make the schools better by raising taxes, but they won’t be part of it, they would have to move.”

Commissioners did indicate they might be willing to increase the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax to help raise the $2 million needed to open the new Northside Elementary.

“We do have a precedent for opening schools in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools on the district tax, so I think as we’re balancing all these different needs, we shouldn’t discount that as a possibility,” said Alice Gordon.

A two-cent increase of the district tax would generate $2 million dollars, while a five-and-a-half cent increase would be needed to fully fund the school board’s budget request.

The manager’s recommended budget falls between $3 million to $8 million dollars short of what the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school boards had asked for, but Board Chair Barry Jacobs noted that the manager’s budget actually increases school spending by about $2.4 million over last year, and he said this year’s funding debate is par for the course.

“I don’t think anybody should take umbrage if we don’t fully fund what the schools request, because they know that no matter what they ask for we can never fully fund it,” said Jacobs.

Officials from both school systems are concerned about state budget proposals that would eliminate funding for teaching assistants in second and third grades.

If approved, the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro districts stand to lose a combined total of 70 teaching assistants. School board representatives estimated it would cost approximately $2.3 million dollars in local money to save those positions.

While the board agreed to keep looking for more school funding, Bernadette Pelissier warned that the county’s resources are limited.

“On the one hand, I say we have to do as much as possible for the schools. On the other hand, we can’t always fill in all the gaps that we have from the federal and state level,” said Pelissier.

Commissioners will continue their deliberations at a series of work sessions next week, with an eye toward formally adopting the budget on June 18.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/bocc-eyes-chccs-district-tax-but-not-property-tax-for-school-funding/