We wanted to better understand the commuting times and distances of the teachers and staff who work in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School District, so we requested anonymized data for all employees from the school district. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro School District is the second largest employer in Orange County, after UNC-Chapel Hill.

We received the zip code and town associated with each teacher, administrator and staff member employed during the 2022-23 school year. (Some employees have since separated from the district but did so during this school year; those that continue to live in NC may still be present in the dataset. We excluded all out-of-state zip codes from our analysis, though we know of several school district employees who commute to the district from southern Virginia.)

What the data doesn’t show us: whether employees of the school district rent or own, how long they have lived in their current residence, and what kind of dwelling it is (single-detached, duplex, multi-family). The data also doesn’t show us if the zip code is associated with a specific employee type (administrator, teacher, support staff member.)

But what it does show is startling: Even with those caveats, we can comfortably say the following: Hundreds of our teachers and school district staffers are currently in the car for a pretty long time each way to work in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. (Time is calculated from Google Maps from center of each town without traffic in ideal conditions.)

Of the 2087 employees we analyzed:

  • A little less than half (46.3%) of all school district employees live in Carrboro (8.5%) or Chapel Hill (37.8%).
  • 20.7% of employees live in Durham (avg. 26 min commute)
  • Mebane (36 minutes, 4.7%), Hillsborough (22 minutes, 4.3%), Pittsboro (31 minutes, 3.5%), Graham (35 minutes, 3%), Raleigh (2.7%, 41 minutes), Cary (37 minutes, 2.1%), Burlington (41 minutes, 2.1%), Greensboro (63 minutes, 1.1%) are other common residences.
  • The remaining 10% live literally all over the state: Whitsett, Elon, High Point, Creedmoor, Oxford, Rocky Mount, Selma, Tarboro, Ayden, Asheboro, Huntersville, Knightdale, and about 50 other communities — commutes stretch up to over 2 hours, one way. This may indicate that there’s a higher chance that it’s not an actual commute but mail is being sent to another address, such as a parent’s house, or a vacation home, or their partner lives in one place and they work here during the week and stay somewhere in town (apartment or couch hopping).

What we learned from this

This is a helpful preliminary analysis, but we’d love better data. We know rising housing prices and very low housing stock have continually pushed teachers out of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The Daily Tar Heel has reported on the fact that teachers are “increasingly unable to afford housing in the district.” The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools 2022-23 Teacher of the Year commutes from Virginia. Recent research suggests that teachers who commute “45 minutes or more to work are 10 percentage points more likely to transfer than another teacher in the same school commuting only 5 minutes.”

Here are some additional questions this preliminary analysis raises:

  • How many administrators, teachers and school district staff members own homes within the average commuting distance for residents of Chapel Hill (22 minutes)? (How many own homes in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and if so, when did they purchase them?)
  • How many teachers struggle with childcare in the morning because they have to get up so early?
  • How do these commute times affect retention?
  • How have these commute times changed over the years?
  • Does Chapel Hill-Carrboro have longer commute times than other school districts?
  • How much money are teachers spending on gas, car repairs, and other car-related items?
  • How many teachers commute via bike, bus, and carpool?
  • How will the proposed upcoming changes to the bus schedules affect teachers’ already-lengthy commutes?

What we plan to do next:

  • Request this data from other school districts in the state to see if Chapel Hill-Carrboro is comparable
  • See if we can get more granular data from the school district
  • Ask researchers at UNC who study teacher retention if they’d like to investigate this with us.
  • Reach out to CHCCS teachers and staff to learn their stories.

If you’d like to help or have an idea, let us know – [email protected]

Thank you to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools for sending us the data.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....