What Gets Your Attention When It Comes to Our Schools?

This is Sharon Kebschull Barrett of the Chapel Hill/Carrboro PTA Council. What gets your attention when it comes to our schools?

This year, voters face important choices, with eight people running for four seats on the school board. The PTA Council, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, and the Special Needs Advisory Council, along with WCHL, are sponsoring a forum for the candidates on October 12 at 7 pm in Chapel Hill Town Hall, and we want to know—what concerns you the most? At the PTA Council, we hear worries about challenging budgets, serious repair needs in our schools, and anxiety about having enough great teachers, great instruction, and real transparency in decision-making by the school board and administration.

And we and the NAACP know the community continues to be alarmed by the schools’ achievement gaps and significant discipline disparities along racial lines. We have serious problems with getting all our students to reach even the minimal standard of proficiency—for example, only 39 percent of economically disadvantaged students, 42 percent of African-American students, and 47 percent of Latino students are proficient, compared with 90 percent proficiency for the district’s white students, among the best in the state.

Students with special needs also remain a focus—only 32 percent of students with disabilities test as proficient. The schools need to continue focusing on how to help students with disabilities have access to mainstream education, or, when that’s not possible, to have a structured curriculum in separate classrooms that helps them continue to grow. The district’s “growth mindset” needs to be more than just words, but action that extends to everyone.

This is already a long list of concerns facing the school board, but it only begins to touch on all the issues we hear discussed—and we know you probably have many more. So tell us what you’d like asked at the forum! Submit questions today here.

Our groups will each choose a third of the pre-planned questions for the evening, and we’ll take other questions from the audience that night. We look forward to seeing you there—and thank you, WCHL, for your participation! For all the forum’s sponsors, this is Sharon Kebschull Barrett.



Back To School, OCRCC Keeps Kids Safe

Students and teachers aren’t the only ones heading back to school.

Volunteers from the Orange County Rape Crisis Center are also heading into local classrooms with their annual safety education programs, teaching kids to say no to bullying and unwanted touching from peers and adults alike.

The OCRCC has two education programs, “Safe Touch” and “Start Strong.” Designed for elementary schools, “Safe Touch” works to prevent child sexual abuse by teaching kids the difference between safe and unsafe touching and encouraging kids to “say no, get away, tell someone” if they experience unwanted touching or abuse. “Start Strong” is an anti-bullying program for middle and high schools – also designed to teach students the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

And the OCRCC also has a training program for adults: called “Stewards for Children,” the program sends volunteers to organizations that work with kids, to teach their staff to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse and take the proper steps when they see something. The national nonprofit Darkness to Light has recognized the OCRCC as a “Partner in Prevention” for this program.

OCRCC Community Education Director Rachel Valentine spoke with WCHL’s Aaron Keck this week.


For more information about the OCRCC and its in-school programs, visit OCRCC.org.


County Commissioners Plan $125 Million Bond For School Repairs

In a 4-2 vote on Tuesday, Orange County Commissioners indicated that next year’s bond referendum will focus solely on school repairs.

“What is the overriding and overarching need in Orange County? In my opinion, that overarching need is schools,” said Board Chair Earl McKee.

He and the majority of commissioners favored a $125 million dollar bond package that would go to fund school repairs and renovations, instead of a proposal to split the funds between schools, parks, affordable housing and other projects.

The Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems have estimated they need as much as $300 million to fully fix aging schools and expand capacity throughout the two districts.

While all commissioners agreed they are committed to funding school needs, Barry Jacobs and Penny Rich opposed a single-item bond package, saying other county needs should be addressed as well.

Jacobs suggested the county should poll residents about their funding priorities, a notion that the majority of the board ignored.

“My comment, since it’s obvious what the majority of the board thinks, is addressed to the residents of Orange County. I think this decision shortchanges you,” said Jacobs. “There’s no reason to be afraid to hear what your opinions are. I think you’re discriminating enough to be able to differentiate what your opinions are and be able to tell elected officials. I think a mono-chromatic bond is a bad idea.”

Commissioner Mia Burroughs argued the discussion of funding an affordable housing initiative was premature.

“I had entertained for some period of time that maybe we’d like to do something about housing, but I don’t think we have a gelled idea, that idea hasn’t cooked enough to be able to do that in this format,” said Burroughs.

Though some on the board suggested future bonds might be used for affordable housing, Rich countered that Orange County residents would not look kindly on multiple bond referendums down the road.

“I think at some point our citizens will get bond fatigue,” said Rich. “I think we’ll have bond fatigue after the Chapel Hill [bond] and then moving into this bond. So, the idea that we could always have another bond, I think that’s not something that would go well with our citizens.”

Chapel Hill voters will see a $40 million bond package on the 2015 municipal ballot. Orange County’s will appear on the ballot in 2016. If voters approve the countywide referendum next year, it will add slightly less than five cents to the property tax rate.

Commissioners will meet with school officials next week.


Save Money, Help Local Teachers

Help raise funds for teachers at Estes Hills Elementary School – and you can save some money for yourself as well.

It’s the “Earn to Learn” fundraiser, created by Estes Hills bookkeeper Michelle Hoover (a former WCHL employee). Twenty dollars buys a coupon book, with deals at a variety of local restaurants, stores and other establishments – and the proceeds go to fund professional development training for Estes Hills teachers.

Hoover joined Aaron Keck on “Aaron in the Afternoon” to discuss the fundraiser, along with Estes Hills teacher Alex Kaji and teaching assistant Savada Gilmore.

To purchase a coupon book, stop by Estes Hills Elementary School on weekdays from 7 am to 3 pm – or contact Hoover at 942-4753, extension 30222.


CHCCS Still Working On Budget

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Friend

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board members gather Thursday night to vote on the upcoming year’s budget.

The district’s website projected posting the budget proposal late last week, but due to the delay by the North Carolina Legislature on its budget decisions, the district pushed the release date to Monday. However, the proposal, which has one hour of the nearly four-hour meeting set aside for it, wasn’t posted to the district’s website until Tuesday morning.

Many concerns swirled around the General Assembly’s budget as teaching assistants were in danger of losing their jobs. Last year, in response to state budget cuts, CHCCS hired new teaching assistants on one-year contracts that the district paid for using reserve funds. School officials said the district ran out of the reserve funds to cover the shortfall, and they waited to see what, if anything, the state would do to help pay for teaching assistants.

With the passage of the $21.1 billion state budget, teaching assistants should be safe. However, some teachers aren’t happy with the final numbers.

Though some called the new budget “historic” for putting $282 million towards education, some educators themselves have criticized the new teacher pay plan.

That’s because longevity pay, the bonus once awarded to teachers with more than ten years of experience is no longer guaranteed. Instead, the new plan caps teacher salaries at $50,000 for those with more than 25 years in the classroom and rolls longevity pay into the base salaries.

This has some long-term teachers estimating their raises at closer to 2-4 percent, while starting teachers will receive a seven-percent boost. Those with half a decade of experience could see as much as an 18-percent increase.


Gov. McCrory Signs Common Core Changes Into Law

RALEIGH – Common Core curriculum standards for North Carolina schools will be rewritten under a bill signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.

Gov. McCrory signed the bill Tuesday along with four others. He said the Common Core bill does not officially repeal the federal standards but will review and improve them.

North Carolina is now one of five states that have changed or removed the Common Core standards from schools and are creating new state-specific ones.

The law directs the State Board of Education to rewrite the Common Core standards for the North Carolina’s K-12 schools. A new 11-member standards advisory commission will be formed to make curriculum recommendations to the board. Common Core, which schools began testing two years ago, would remain in place until the new standards are completed.


On School Funding, BOCC Faces Tough Choices

Tonight at 7:00, the Orange County Board of Commissioners holds a work session (at the Southern Human Services Center) to continue discussing next year’s fiscal budget – including, perhaps most notably, the question of funding for Orange County’s two school districts.

The current proposal (with no property tax increase) includes a $2.9 million combined increase in spending for Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools – but the two districts face a combined shortfall of around $7 million. Local officials are also watching the budget debate in Raleigh, where legislators are considering at least one proposal that would eliminate funding for teaching assistants in grades 2 and 3 (among other things).

Many local residents have called on county commissioners to raise the county’s property tax rate to fully fund the school districts’ budget requests, but county officials have been reluctant to raise a rate that’s already relatively high (fifth-highest of North Carolina’s 100 counties).

Click here for budget and tax-rate information, from an earlier board meeting agenda.

With all of that (and more) in mind, WCHL’s Aaron Keck sat down on Tuesday with County Commissioner Penny Rich, who’s also a parent in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district.

Listen to their conversation.



Local Electeds React To State Senate Budget

The North Carolina General Assembly is meeting in “short session” this year – but there’s been no shortness of controversy.

At the center of debate last week was the budget proposal released by State Senate Republicans, which includes more than $400 million for a significant hike in teacher salaries – but that raise comes (among other things) at the expense of massive cuts to teacher assistants in grades 2 and 3.

Already facing a multi-million-dollar shortfall, officials at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools say the Senate’s proposal would likely force the district to make even more cuts than they were initially planning – unless they can persuade County Commissioners to dig even deeper into the pool of local money. (Fully funding the budget requests of both the county’s districts would almost certainly necessitate a tax increase, though, which County Commissioners and county staff have been reluctant to impose.)

Meanwhile – though it hasn’t received as much media attention – local municipalities across the state are also contending with the repeal of a business privilege tax, which the AP reports could cost municipalities a total of $62 million statewide. Governor Pat McCrory signed the repeal on Thursday.

With those and other issues in mind, WCHL’s Aaron Keck invited Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board member James Barrett to the studio on Thursday, for a pair of conversations about the local impact of recent actions at the NCGA.

Mark Kleinschmidt:

James Barrett:


WCHL To Host Teacher Pay Forum Friday

Teachers in North Carolina schools are among the lowest-paid in the nation, and state and local officials say that’s having a crippling effect on the quality of education in the state.

Governor Pat McCrory recently unveiled a plan to increase teacher pay, but school leaders say it’s not enough – and this week, State Representative Graig Meyer told WCHL that morale among teachers is lower now than he’s ever seen it in his career in public education.

Friday on the Afternoon News, WCHL will host a special forum on the teacher-salary issue. Aaron Keck will be joined by Arasi Adkins, the executive director of human resources at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools; Mary Gunderson, the district’s coordinator of teacher recruitment and support; and Christoph Stutts, a teacher at Carrboro High.

The forum will begin at 4:06 p.m. Tweet us your questions and comments @WCHL and we’ll address them in the discussion.


Push For Teacher Raises Takes Hold In NC

STATEWIDE – With teachers in North Carolina among the lowest paid in the nation, a grassroots effort is taking shape to persuade state legislators to raise teacher salaries.

“If (teachers) can go elsewhere and get higher pay, better benefits, and a feeling of better respect for the profession, they’re going to do that,” says UNC-Greensboro education professor Wayne Journell. He’s one of many North Carolinians who, just in the last two weeks, have begun to raise their voices publicly in support of higher teacher pay.

That issue, of course, has been a controversial one for months. Last year, as North Carolina dropped to 46th in the nation in teacher salaries, the General Assembly voted to cut salary bonuses for teachers who earned master’s degrees—while simultaneously reducing funding for teaching assistants and eliminating teacher tenure.

Critics argued then that those moves would drive good teachers out of the state. In fact Chapel Hill-Carrboro assistant superintendent Todd LoFrese said in August that the process had already begun.

“We lost a great math teacher to Kentucky,” LoFrese said then. “That teacher’s making $10,000 more in Kentucky than they would have made here on the North Carolina salary schedule.”

And it wasn’t only the established teachers who were leaving. At UNC-G, Journell says his students were beginning to look elsewhere too.

“And they said, ‘Why–given what’s going on in the state–why should I consider staying in North Carolina to teach?'” Journell says. “And honestly, I couldn’t give them a good answer.”

Journell says that’s why he picked up his pen—and wrote an open letter to Governor Pat McCrory last week urging him to take action to raise teacher pay.

Read Journell’s letter here, via NCPolicyWatch.com.

And Journell wasn’t the only one.

On January 4, former Governor Jim Hunt wrote an editorial in the News and Observer challenging the General Assembly to raise teacher pay in North Carolina to the national average. Hunt says he himself led the charge to do just that during his tenure as governor—with bipartisan support. And while the effort was costly—$240 million per year—Hunt says it also paid off: between 1999 and 2001, as teacher salaries were increasing by 7.5 percent per year, he says student test scores were also rising faster than in any other state.

The General Assembly won’t be back in session for months, but Hunt’s editorial reshaped the debate, at least for now. Last week, an organization called Aim Higher NC launched an online petition to urge the GA to raise teacher salaries—and got more than 10,000 signatures in the first 36 hours. A survey from Public Policy Polling indicated that 79 percent of North Carolinians—including 66 percent of Republicans—favored Hunt’s proposal to raise teacher salaries to the national average. Governor McCrory too says he’s committed to raising teacher pay in 2014, though specific details still have to be ironed out.

And in Greensboro, Journell says his open letter got a big response.

“The next day when I opened up my email, I had a bunch of emails to go through,” he says. “I was kind of concerned that some of them would be saying, ‘oh, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,’ but all the emails I got were very, very positive.” (No response yet from Governor McCrory though, he says.)

It remains to be seen, of course, whether state legislators will ride the wave. Former Governor Hunt admits that any significant teacher pay raise will be costly—and while there’s bipartisan support for higher teacher salaries, Republicans in particular also remain opposed to any tax hikes.

But Journell says he’s hopeful that the current movement will have an impact in the end—and not just for the benefit of his students.

“You know, I have a kid,” he says. “She just turned one. She’s going to be educated in this state. And I want young, energetic teachers to be in North Carolina…

“I just don’t want us to drive them away.”