A few days before a town council meeting or a school board meeting, slides and an agenda are published online. This is typically the first time we’re seeing how staff plan to present an issue at the meeting.

Ahead of the May 16, 2024 CHCCS school board meeting, the school district published a slidedeck, a report, and a proposed resolution concerning the upcoming planned school bond. It was based on a few years of discussions and consultant reports (timeline here) but it was totally alarming if you were seeing it for the first time, which most people were. It contained a slide entitled “How it could be done…” which looks like this:

This is a scary slide if you’re seeing this information for the first time.

I’ll note that the discussion from the school board was pushed to their June meeting, so it hasn’t happened yet. But a lot has happened since the slides were posted, and I’m not convinced that the timeline as presented above is the best or most effective approach given what’s happened since then. Also, that slide by itself – which was posted online in several places without context – doesn’t effectively communicate that there are two major issues in play:


One is that our schools need to be repaired. The bond is designed to make those repairs to reduce utility and maintenance costs in our oldest school buildings, and to make needed repairs. Right now, there are students across the district who have dealt with floods (Seawell), unreliable heating and cooling systems, ceilings caving in (Phillips), mold, mildew, air quality, and foundation problems – and limited access for those with disabilities. A letter from Carrboro Elementary School’s principal to the county commissioners last January spells out the condition of our schools right now:

Unfortunately, we face challenges each day with the conditions of our building.  Our maintenance department is here almost daily fixing leaks, broken doors, hvac, pests due to cracks and holes in the exterior, mold, etc.  Safety is a major concern.  These issues interfere with our ability to provide the best possible learning environment for our students.

These are pictures from CHCCS schools from the now-defunct Save Orange Schools PAC website, which launched in 2020 to bring awareness to these conditions:

The other issue in play – which has nothing to do with school repairs – is that our elementary school population has been steadily decreasing. This is detailed in a yearly report which the county commissioners receive each year. As we’ve detailed before, the reasons for this are complex: the number of parents choosing private, charter or homeschooling options has increased since the pandemic and since more vouchers have been offered by the state; Carrboro and Chapel Hill’s populations have gotten older and wealthier and people are having fewer kids, and we don’t have a variety of housing options to fit people at different stages of their lifespan. Our population is growing very, very slowly – and what growth we do have is in our 65+ population.

student-headcount-declines

This isn’t specific to our school district – the same declines and population trends  are happening nationwide – but they paint a troubling picture going forward if we want to maintain high quality public schools for all students in our district, because the average daily membership of a school affects school funding. And some of our elementary schools are operating at 80% capacity.

These are people who care about public schools raising good points

There’s a good discussion on Reddit about all of this. I highly recommend that our county commissioners and school board members take a look, because the parents in the thread are making some really good points. These are people who care about public school in North Carolina. And they’re conveying the following: McDougle Elementary School serves students who bus, but it also serves a large walking/biking community around the school. We have a bus shortage. McDougle is a tight-knit community. Should we reexamine our magnet programs? (Probably yes! But also dual language was set up to help multi-language learners; It gets framed as a perk but it’s more complicated then that.) Why is one school potentially getting split up in so many different directions? Does this affect this year’s kindergarteners? Next year’s?

I realize there are many factors in play here: the school district needs to think about aging buildings across the district, capacity, future growth, current funding, and a host of considerations. But parents are starting to rally against the bond because of changes to their specific elementary schools. The PTA at McDougle Elementary School is holding a forum on the bond tonight from 5:30-7 at MLK Park in Carrboro. They’ve been sending emails to the school board and are rallying people across social media. Yard signs are coming.

My fear is this: many of the needed repairs to our schools need to be made with *or without* a school bond, and if the bond doesn’t pass, then the money has to come from other parts of our shrinking budget. That will hurt students across our school district, for years to come.

The timeline for “How it Could Be Done” isn’t set in stone. (I’ll note that the bottom says ‘order of events subject to change.’)

And what we’re hearing from the community is that they should change. Is there a way to make elementary school shifts later on in the intended timeline, to keep McDougle kids together? Is there a way to give parents a clear timeline on when changes are likely to take place and when? Is there a way for the school board members or commissioners to put out information on their own – through a newsletter? – so that people can have an accurate idea of what’s going on?

In the absence of good information, other information fills the void. I’m starting to see misinformation pop up, but I’m also seeing very good points being raised. There will always be groups against a school bond, but many of the voices I’m seeing now aren’t those people. And the points they’re making are ones we should listen to, and incorporate — and communicate (loudly! widely! clearly!) and quickly.

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....