We are strong advocates for a school bond because many of the schools across our district are not only beyond their useful life spans, but are educationally inadequate. In the 1950s and 1960s–when many of our schools were built–they were not designed to house exceptional children classrooms, small group classrooms, speech or occupational therapist offices, therapy space, wiring for tech, teacher offices, after school space, or pre-K space.

Safety and accessibility were also not concerns so older campuses in our district currently have several buildings or bathrooms accessed by going outside, along with spaces that are not accessible by people in wheelchairs. This isn’t safe or acceptable in 2024.

Beyond limited access for those with disabilities,many of our students and teachers are saddled with buildings that have unreliable heating and cooling systems, flood during heavy rains, and suffer from mold, mildew, air quality, plumbing, and foundation problems.

So we must pass a bond. But our community’s input about what the bond then funds also must be addressed and it must be clear how community input will be received.

What parents and teachers said last night

Last night, a bunch of parents and teachers spoke at the county commissioners meeting. From their comments, we know two things: 1) Nearly everyone wants to support a school bond. These are people who realize the importance of a school bond and the need to improve our failing facilities. This is not a group of conservative anti-tax people who don’t want to support public education. 2) People want decision-making that also incorporates something that’s very important to our community: maximizing the walk and bike zones around our schools and recognizing that schools are more than just physical facilities – they can also be community hubs.

The current proposed plan shifts many walkers and bikers into bus riders. We’ve written in the past about difficulties that our school district has with bus transportation, and we have also advocated heavily for a greenway network connecting our schools. We’ve cheered when Phase 2B of the Bolin Creek Greenway received funding from the MPO—that will connect Morris Grove Elementary School to the existing Bolin Creek Greenway—and we’re pushing hard for Phases 3 and 4 to get funding, because that phase will connect many parts of Carrboro and Chapel Hill to Seawell, Smith, and Chapel Hill High School. The result, in our minds, will help many more students bike and walk safely throughout our district. The result will be fewer cars idling in long car lines outside schools and better mental health for students who can exercise before the school day starts: a win-win.

Walking and biking zones must be maximized as we rethink our school facilities. 

We are also strong advocates for maximizing bikeability and walkability for each school zone, which the current proposal for the school bond does not do.  That’s not the fault of the consultant that the Commissioners hired. The consultant is an expert in evaluating facilities and how to prioritize repairing and replacing them.

But that’s not the end of the story. We want to ensure that walk and bike zones—which are vital for climate, mental health, and transportation options—are maximized. And we think this is possible and that the school board should recommend changing the plan to do so. Here are some ideas:

We need a rubric immediately

We know that the school district is operating under constraints – they can only build schools where they own land. We also understand that shifts will need to take place in our school systems: that’s inevitable because of population declines in our elementary school-aged population. 

However, we would be a lot more comfortable if the school board developed a decision-making rubric to use when assessing how and when schools should be redeveloped and redistricted to improve our aging infrastructure and to right-size our school buildings. (Some elementary schools are operating well under capacity, so some shifts will have to take place. We can accept that, if we know how factors are weighed against each other.)

We know that the district has information about the number of students who walk or bike, compared to the number of students who ride the bus or drive/are driven for each school. That is baseline information that is critical to making an informed decision about school closure and consolidation, as well as where students live and who could practically walk or bike to school in the future.

Using that data, we’d like the school board request a biking/walking rubric for all schools in each phase of the plan with the following data points addressed:

  • What percentage of walking/biking students are turned into bus-riding students if this school is closed or this neighborhood is shifted to a different school?
  • What is the race/ethnicity/SES of walkers/bikers vs. bus riders if shifts are made? (We don’t want to see a situation where bus riders are traveling longer distances than they otherwise would be.)
  • (For dual language/newcomers) Is the distance to the dual language/newcomers school minimized for Spanish-speaking bus riding students? 

There may be a scenario where some of the necessary shifts that need to happen can create more walkers and bikers, not fewer walkers and bikers. We think parents will accept that if they can see the intentionality and rationale behind the decisions. But we aren’t sure from what we’ve seen so far.

We also understand that other factors – the proximity of schools to other schools with replacement needs, current enrollment, program needs, utilization, facility conditions, which grades are and should be in which sites  – need to be assessed. This is information that Woolpert already analyzed – it’s mentioned in the executive summary of their report –  so the data exists and can also be put into a rubric.

Do everything possible to use Lincoln Center site during school shifts

Lincoln Center currently houses the CHCCS administrative offices and it is in terrible shape – we know that. It’s also a site of historic significance, as it was the location of a pre-integration, all-Black school. So we need to treat that land with care and sensitivity. Still, it’s centrally located on land the school district owns and we live in an age of remote work and hybrid work.

Is it possible to use this land or space differently and temporarily for the duration of construction of a new elementary school? Is it possible to upgrade this space enough to house elementary school students from Carrboro or FPG while dual language is being rethought or CES is being rebuilt? Is it possible to build a new school here, given the nice spacious lot?

For new schools, consider sites that are better connected to future and existing housing 

The current plan suggests that we build a new middle school on a 24-acre site that’s adjacent to Morris Grove Elementary. While we can see why this is being considered—it’s undeveloped land—building a school at the edge of our district, steps away from the rural buffer, doesn’t make sense to us right now. If this school is built, almost every student who attends it will have a long bus or car ride to get there, which will cost a lot of time and money in the long term.

There are other sites to consider. For example, there may be enough land around Chapel Hill High School to support an additional school. Carrboro Elementary School sits on a 20-acre site, which is enough to support a much larger elementary school, or even a middle school. While Frank Porter Graham’s site is not a good location for an elementary school, a 10-acre piece of land would be very attractive for a private developer. Perhaps the school system can consider selling it and using the proceeds to buy land elsewhere – or may be able to use that land for administrative space.

Again, we support the bond. We strongly believe that everyone should vote Yes to inject this money into our school systems for capital needs. But how those schools are selected, in what order, and how we can maximize walking/biking for students must be addressed by our school board — and that’s their job over the next several months.

Let’s work with them.

And while we are at it!

*A great idea that elected officials from both towns, school district leaders, and school board members support is teacher housing. We know that it’s tough to recruit and retain teachers. We also know that many teachers drive far distances to work here because they can’t afford to own or rent in the district. Let’s use this process to consider opportunities to construct affordable teacher housing. 

*We need to create an intergovernmental working group comprised of school and town representatives to make sure that wherever possible school construction and renovation incorporates community values.

*We should push for a debt oversight committee. This is a lot of money, and community members deserve to know it’s being responsibly spent.

*It’s worth reading what happened the last time the district made shifts – it’s important to understand the history here as well.

This post was written by Martin Johnson, Melody Kramer, John Rees, and Geoff Green.

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