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.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools faces $3.3 million shortfall

CHAPEL HILL –  A budget shortfall for Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools could force superintendents and Orange County Commissioners to make tough decisions over the next few months.

Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese praises Commissioners for preventing layoffs, while managing to keep property taxes at the same level for five years.

However, some of that magic was made possible by tapping money in the school system’s fund balance, which is now depleted. The fund balance supported $2.2 million of paid positions.

LoFrese says that money represents about 32 teachers’ jobs, or 65 teacher’s assistants jobs.

“That’s a lot of positions that provide important services to students,” he says.

***Listen to the full interview between Todd LoFrese and WCHL’s Aaron Keck***

On top of that, the school system must factor in rising health insurance costs. And LoFrese says that about $1 million is earmarked for possible staff salary increases.

“It’s not enough, considering what they’ve been going though for that past five years,” he says. “But a three-percent salary increase puts pressure on the local budget.”

LoFrese says all of that brings the local budget shortfall to $3.3 million.

He won’t rule out cuts to staff and services, but LoFrese says he’d rather not see that happen. He’s especially concerned about teacher’s assistants.

“The reason I’m concerned about that is because there continues to be pressure at the state level,” LoFrese says. “The state made a permanent cut to teacher assistants last year of a certain dollar amount. They’re increasing that this year.”

The 2013 cuts amounted to $120 million and the elimination of 3,850 teacher’s assistants jobs, according to an August report in The News and Observer.

LoFrese says that Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools watches the General Assembly closely; tries to anticipate its moves; and then plans accordingly.

The possibility of a statewide teachers’ raise would be included as a place holder in a budget presented to Orange County Commissioners this year.

Talks with Commissioners begin in February. A Superintendent’s recommended budget will be published sometime in early March, followed by the School Board submitting its recommended budget to the county a few weeks later. LoFrese says the final budget should be completed at the end of June.

Meanwhile, he suggests that concerned parents advocate their positions at the state level.

“This is a statewide issue,” LoFrese says, “and advocacy at the state level where these decisions that are being made that impact us – I think that’s key one right now.”

CHCCS Board To Vote On New Budget Plan

CHAPEL HILL-Members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board hope to adopt a new budget Thursday night, despite the fact that the General Assembly’s spending plan is still up in the air.

School officials are looking to trim the local budget in anticipation of state-level cuts that could cost the district up to $1.3 million dollars of funding for teaching assistants.

The school board spent much of its last meeting re-evaluating spending priorities to make sure enough local funding is set aside to cover the budget shortfall.

But administrators are backing away from a plan to cut the number of gifted education specialists at each elementary, recommending that the district forgo hiring new middle school literacy coaches instead.

The legislature is still working out the details of next year’s state budget. If the state cuts prove to be more than anticipated, school officials say they will have to make do with one less teaching assistant at each of the district’s eleven elementary schools.

The board meets Thursday July 18 at 7:00 p.m. at the Lincoln Center on South Merritt Mill Road. Click here for the full agenda.

CHCCS Board Eyes Cuts To Gifted Ed To Balance Budget

CHAPEL HILL- As local leaders wait and wait for a final state budget, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board members are struggling with how to fill the funding gaps, even before they know exactly what those gaps will be.

The school board came together for an unusual Monday meeting to consider a $1.7 million dollar package of possible reductions at the local level that could help ease the blow of projected cuts to the state education budget.

And while board members agreed that tough choices must be made, the board was split on a plan to cut the number of gifted education specialists down to one at each elementary school.

Jamezetta Bedford said after four years of budget cuts, the reductions might be unavoidable.

“I’m very reluctant, but I don’t know what else to cut,” said Bedford. “Because we have cut athletics, we have cut foreign languages. I don’t know what else to give up.”

The plan would reduce the total number of specialists through attrition and reassignment, saving the district $385,000. But nearly a dozen gifted education teachers and parents of gifted children came out to protest the cuts, saying it would jeopardize an already overburdened program.

Wendy Morgan has a child in the gifted education program at Morris Grove.

“I’m concerned that the creative energies that allow our gifted children to accomplish difficult and impressive feats could easily be overlooked,” said Morgan. “Without the appropriate channels for their gifts, it’s not only possible, but it is likely that many gifted children will become classroom behavior problems.”

Board members argued the size and scope of the gifted program is part of the problem. Citing failures to implement new teaching models and inconsistent implementation from school to school, James Barrett said it’s clear the current model isn’t working.

“We have a demonstrated need for better gifted education,” said Barrett. “What they’re doing today is not better gifted education, and so taking the cut, in some ways, is the shock that’s needed to improve the process.”

Still, some on the board including Michelle Brownstein worried that cutting the staff by a third without revamping the program would leave students underserved.

“We’re not there yet,” said Brownstein. “The best we have right now is our gifted education specialists. I don’t see how the classroom teacher can meet the needs of all the kids in these classrooms without their help.”

Adding to the confusion is the ongoing delay in the state legislature, as next year’s spending plan is tied up in negotiations about a possible tax system overhaul.

Lawmakers passed a continuing resolution to keep the government funded through July 31, but local leaders hope to sign off on a budget next week.

Under the Senate’s proposal, the district could lose as much as $1.3 million in funding for teaching assistants, while the House plan would only cut about $300,000. If the final budget more closely resembles the House plan, administrators might not need to implement the proposed reductions at all.

No votes were taken, but the board gave general approval to a series of less controversial cuts, including delaying the addition of a special education classroom and forgoing a onetime bonus to personnel. Members were less certain about a plan to start charging a fee for driver’s education, pending more information about a waiver system.

The proposed spending cuts will return for a formal vote next Thursday, when school board members plan to approve the final budget, even if the state budget is still in limbo.

BOCC Budget: More For Schools and Public Safety

CHAPEL HILL- For the fifth year in a row, Orange County Commissioners approved a budget that does not include a countywide property tax rate increase.

The $187 million dollar spending plan adopted on Tuesday increases school funding by $102 dollars per pupil and raises the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax by two cents to help open the new Northside Elementary.

With $91 million dollars going to the county’s two school districts, County Manager Frank Clifton said it’s clear where the board’s priorities lie.

“Nobody can question that our number one priority is education,” said Clifton. “If you compare Orange County to the majority of counties in our state […] you won’t find anyone that comes close.”

Clifton also commended commissioners for their commitment to improving the county’s emergency response times by allocating funding for EMS equipment, technology upgrades and new personnel.

“This board has stepped up in the matter of public safety like no other board in the county’s past history,” said Clifton. “I think the good news is that the people of Orange County will see a much better response from the county going forward.”

The board also approved a five-year Capital Investment Plan that includes money for a science wing at Culbreth Middle School, an auxiliary gym at Cedar Ridge High School, and renovations to the Whitted building to create a meeting space for local governments.

With the final budget formally adopted, the board of commissioners will go on hiatus for the summer and resume regular meetings in September.

CHCCS: Tough Choices Despite Increased Funding

CHAPEL HILL- Orange County Commissioners dug into reserve funds and decided to raise the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax rate this week, all to find more money to help local schools weather the cuts proposed in the state budget.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member James Barrett says the county budget will help cover some significant funding gaps.

“I think what this does is it gives us some money to cover those mandatory items and basically keep the level of service about where it is now, which is down from what it was several years ago, based on state cuts in particular,” said Barrett. “It’s not where we want it to be, but we live with it this year.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro officials were worried that the county manager’s recommended budget fell $4.6 million shy of what they asked for, leaving the district without the money to open the new Northside Elementary.

The decision to raise the school district tax by two cents will generate the $2 million needed for Northside. Commissioners also allocated $1 million in reserve funds to the district, leaving $1.6 million of the school system’s budget request unfunded.

Barrett says school board members will have to weigh some tough choices as the budget process continues.

“We talked about some of the trade-offs that we might have to make, whether that be teaching assistants, which is what the state is proposing, or freezing salaries or increasing class sizes. The board will continue to talk about it as we get final numbers and we’ll make some decisions about what’s most important to us.”

Budget proposals in the legislature would cut funding for teaching assistants in second and third grade classrooms. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools could lose as many as 37 teaching assistants, or spend up to $1.3 million to retain those positions.

The state’s push to lift the cap on class size could also take a bite out of the local budget, if district leaders decide to pay for additional teachers to improve the student to teacher ratio.

School officials had hoped to offer all staff a $500 bonus since the state budget is not likely to include a pay raise, but that money could be reallocated to cover other shorfalls.

In one piece of good news for the district, county leaders agreed to spend $600,000 in the next fiscal year and approximately $4.3 million over the next three years to build a six classroom science wing at Culbreth Middle School.

Although county commissioners were not able to fully fund the school board’s request, Barrett says next year’s budget represents a compromise.

“It’s certainly a challenge and I’m glad that the commissioners were willing to step forward with some funding and some new revenues. I wish that we’d gotten more for our kids but I understand the constraints they’re under and I’m glad we reached some sort of middle ground.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School board last week asked administrators to return with a full list of possible reductions to consider. The school board will schedule a special work session to discuss the state and local budget sometime in July, ahead of the formal vote to adopt the budget on July 18.

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.

Parents Lobby BoCC For School Funding

CHAPEL HILL- For the second time in two weeks, parents and teachers raised their voices to ask Orange County Commissioners to raise more money for schools.

Nearly a hundred residents turned out for Thursday’s public hearing on next year’s  county budget and the vast majority called for a tax increase to fund both school systems.

“I’m here tonight, with many others, to ask you to do what it takes to fund the school districts at their requested amounts,” said Margaret Samuels. “I would support an increase in the county tax and the special district tax to support both school districts.”

“I’m a property owner, a taxpayer, a father and a citizen,” said Hunter Pendleton. “I’m anxious to pay more taxes.”

“My parents said they’re willing to pay more in taxes so the schools will have enough money to keep things going the way they are now,” said third-grader Calvin Hinkle.

“I honestly would be disappointed if I open my tax bill in September and I don’t see a tax increase in it that fully funds our schools,” said James Easthom.

The manager’s budget recommendation covers operational expenses and enrollment growth but it does not fully fund the requests from either school board.

To generate the $8.8 million in additional funding the school boards are asking for, commissioners would need to raise the county-wide property tax by 5.5 cents per hundred dollars of value. Alternately, commissioners could increase the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax by the same amount to generate 5.7 million for that school system alone.

Commissioners have not raised the property tax rate in four years. Victoria Templeton reminded the crowd that school budgets have been shrinking during that time.

“Initially the cuts were used to improve efficiencies, but now we’ve gone beyond efficiencies and we’ve gone beyond waste and we’re now cutting essential programs,” said Templeton.

All parties agreed that the funding shortfalls are made worse by state and federal budget cuts. Commissioner Mark Dorosin urged the audience to make their voices heard next week at the Mega Moral Monday protest at the General Assembly.

“It is incredibly important, as you all said so eloquently tonight, to understand that while we’ll do what we can, the real struggle is much bigger than what’s happening in the county,” said Dorosin. “It’s happening statewide.”

The commissioners will take up budget negotiations at a work session on June 6.