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.

CHCCS Budget Funds Teaching Assists., Gifted Ed

Photo by Doug Wilson.

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board unanimously adopted a new budget Thursday, after administrators dropped a plan to reduce  the number of gifted education specialists at each elementary school.

Instead, the district will forgo hiring new middle school literacy coaches and skip a one-time bonus for school employees.

The reductions will allow school officials to set aside nearly $870,000 to fill teaching assistant positions that state budget proposals do not cover.

Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese said the district is still waiting on final numbers from the General Assembly.

“If the reductions are less than $870,000 then the board could consider re-appropriating that funding for different priorities, or if they are greater, then we would have to look at additional reductions,” Lofrese told the board.

If state cuts to education funding total more than the district has set aside, each elementary could lose one teaching assistant.

The board also reserved $40,000 to cover the cost of Driver’s Education, another state-funded program possibly on the chopping block. LoFrese said school officials will spend whatever state money is allocated for Drivers Education before dipping into local funds.

The 2013-2014 budget is balanced using $3.2 million of the district’s reserve funds, but LoFrese told the board that means next budget season the district will start off with a deficit.

“We do not anticipate having this additional funding available next year,” said LoFrese. “We’re starting with what we believe is a $2.2 million dollar hole at the start of the budget development process.”

While the full impact of the state cuts on local schools is still unclear, district leaders could get answers soon, as the North Carolina House and Senate are expected to finalize the state budget next week.

CHCCS School Board Calls For SAPFO Review

CHAPEL HILL- Each year around this time, school officials sign off on the annual SAPFO report, which analyzes student enrollment and estimates the need for new facilities.

And although the school board on Thursday approved this year’s report without hesitation, board members agree that it may be time to review the way student generation rates are calculated.

Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese told the school board that recent projections have not been accurate, in part because new developments don’t fit the model currently in place.

“Some neighborhoods like Chapel Watch Village, Chapel Hill North, and the multi-family units at Winmore and Claremont- before they were completed they’d already exceeded the anticipated generation rates for new students,” said LoFrese.

SAPFO stands for Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. It’s an agreement between the school systems, towns and counties to use planning data on new residential development to project school enrollment before a permit is issued. If the projections exceed school capacity, SAPFO calls for a delay on construction until new facilities are in place.

But the decade-old ordinance is under fire from several directions. School officials in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district are seeing higher than expected student generation rates from new apartment complexes, while Orange County officials say growth in Mebane is skewing their numbers, as the town is not a party to the SAPFO agreement.

And a recent N.C. Supreme Court ruling may take the teeth out of the ordinance, by prohibiting the towns from withholding permits to developers on the basis of SAPFO numbers.

With all this in mind, Chapel Hill-Carrboro School board members want the county to consider a study to review how the SAPFO ordinance is working.

A full review could cost as much as $100,000, while a report focused only on student generation rates would cost about $40,000.

Annetta Streater said it might be worth the cost to look at the bigger picture.

“Since both the districts are interested in trying to get more accurate information, I just wonder is it wise to go ahead and pursue a comprehensive study, versus just this one piece related to the student generation rates,” said Streater. “Given our past challenges in being able to use this data, to just extract one piece doesn’t really give us all that we need.”

Current SAPFO projections call for a new middle school for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district in 2017, but LoFrese said if county commissioners decide to find the Culbreth science wing expansion this year, it will increase capacity and delay the need for a new school by two years.

Jamezetta Bedford reiterated the need for the expansion, saying the current classrooms are unacceptable.

“It’s not just an addition,” said Bedford. “There is no water in those rooms. They are inadequate spaces. They shouldn’t be called science labs; they’re just long hallway room that science is taught in.”

The county commissioners will consider funding for the Culbreth science wing at a budget work session on May 9th.

The SAPFO report will be forwarded to county commissioners for review later this month.

School Officials Decry General Assembly’s “Bad Ideas”

HILLSBOROUGH- School leaders say next year’s budget crunch is made worse by what they call “bad ideas” coming out of the General Assembly.

Officials from both the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school districts told county commissioners on Tuesday that they are deeply worried about the impact state bills will have on local school budgets and the quality of instruction.

Orange County Schools Superintendent Patrick Rhodes said he’s dismayed by much of the legislation working its way through the legislature.

“I have never seen this level of legislative activity associated with public schools,” said Rhodes. “Much of it is hurtful, much of it opposed by the North Carolina School Boards Association, much of it opposed by the principals association and the teachers association, because it truly is bad ideas.”

Those ideas include a wide variety of proposals, from expanding the reach of charter schools to introducing school voucher programs.

Rhodes said a push to open a virtual charter school could attract many local students who are currently home-schooled.

“If a virtual charter is established, we would be required to pay the charter school. It would be a for-profit charter and one of them is on the table to start up this fall,” said Rhodes. “Assume that half of those 667 students sign up for the virtual charter, that would be, across the two systems, a drop of a million in funding.”

While Governor Pat McCrory has stressed that his proposed budget will add teachers, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese said that comes at a cost, specifically the loss of teaching assistants.

“The governor’s proposed budget for our district equates to a $1.1 million dollar reduction for teacher assistants, that’s probably 35 or 36 positions,” LoFrese told commissioners.

Both school districts face rising enrollment coupled with state and federal budget cuts. Orange County School officials are asking the county for an additional $158 per pupil next year, while Chapel Hill-Carrboro school leaders are requesting nearly a $400 per-pupil increase.

Orange County Schools will dip into its reserves to the tune of just under $1 million, while Chapel Hill-Carrboro will allocate slightly more than $3 million to help cover the shortfall.

LoFrese said relying on the district’s fund balance is not sustainable.

“This budget is balanced based on the board continuing to assign fund balance at an increased level of $3.2 million dollars,” said LoFrese. “We believe this is probably the last year the board is going to be able to do this.”

Though they have yet to solve next year’s funding puzzle for either school system, commissioners including Mark Dorosin vowed to fight against any proposal that spends public money on private education.

“I am angry and I feel like we have to collectively raise our voices about what is going on here and pull the covers back on this,” said Dorosin. His words met with applause from the audience.

In other school board news, county commissioners on Thursday took a closer look at what it would take to build a new $5 million dollar science wing at Culbreth Middle School.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro school officials say adding the wing would increase student capacity enough to delay the construction of a fifth middle school for several years, but commissioners are still struggling to find a way to fund it that doesn’t put the county over its debt limit in the near future.

The board of commissioners will continue the conversation on the Culbreth science wing at a budget work session on May 9.

A public hearing on next year’s budget will be held May 23.