Last Thursday’s school board meeting clocked in at 4 hours and 57 minutes, which is enough time to get through almost all the original Star Wars movies in the original trilogy. And in a way, this meeting also felt like both a sequel and a prequel: we picked up some issues from the May meeting, and we left with a preview of more discussions to take place at the June 20th meeting. Here are the highlights:

The school board asked district staff to create some different options for the school bond

Last week we reported on the initial concerns with the draft proposal. We also reported that School Board Chair George Griffin wrote a newsletter that made it very, very clear that the draft was a draft and that adjustments were coming.

This was made even more clear at this meeting. Griffin provided some historical context outlining what happened previously. To keep it short, the board was supposed to discuss the bond proposal in May but their meeting went super late and they pushed the discussion to June. But the slides from the district’s presentation were put online in May. Tonight’s meeting is the first meeting where the entire board will discuss this for the first time.

The big takeaway: The school district is going back to the drawing board and presenting the school board with some different alternatives for their June 20th meeting. The county can then make an amendment and move forward.

Constraints that the school district has to deal with were detailed

Now we dig into the presentation. A lot of our schools are in really poor shape. This is due to our schools not being adequately funded by the county or state for many, many years. (The current commissioners, who are very pro public education, will freely admit this happened over many, many previous years of neglect.)

The district has several challenges which I will summarize quickly: we have limited space on existing sites, so in order to make repairs or replace schools (which are sometimes more cost efficient to replace than repair) we need to find what’s called a “swing space” for kids to go. The school district also has to prioritize the schools to repair/replace, and they need to minimize disruption over both the short and medium term. Also, enrollment changes every year. And sometimes things break unexpectedly and need to jump the line.

The county commissioners have established that major school repairs need to take place “in consistency with the [consultant’s] plan” but haven’t locked the district into a specific plan

What does this mean? The county commissioners basically have said: they want our kids in the best facilities possible and they don’t want to keep paying to bandaid our schools. That’s more expensive and some of the facilities are inadequate for ADA reasons and spacing reasons. They would prefer new buildings – which have reduced ongoing costs – than patching up existing buildings.

The commissioners have also said that the plan will be reviewed annually, because they understand that there needs to be flexibility and what is approved today may not be ultimately what happens in seven years or eight years.

The takeaway from this is that there’s a lot of flexibility built in. This is repeated several times. The county wants the district to follow the principles of the plan, but there’s flexibility in how that’s done. Still, there are some buildings in really poor shape and they will likely be at the top of the list for replacement or repair.

Capital projects and salaries come from two different pools of money

I didn’t understand this before but it was explained well: under state law, county governments in NC are responsible for the maintenance of school buildings. This is capital funding. Operational funding is what pays salaries – and that’s not through debt (bonds); it’s through cash generated through local funds. (In CHCCS, local funds pay many staff salaries as a complement to the teachers and instructional assistants funded by the state.)

Our elementary school utilization is low

This was interesting: every school building has maintenance costs and utility costs. Many of our elementary schools have empty classrooms – enough to basically equal two complete elementary schools. Projections 10 years out show that this population is not expected to increase.

The school board brings up walkability and racial equity: two important components

This is also made clear: Barb Fedders wants an intergovernmental task force that helps infuse things like the Carrboro Connects plan and Chapel Hill’s Complete Communities plan into these discussions. She also advocates for examining the racial equity impact. She points out that both towns have Safe Routes to School programs, federal bike/walk initiatives, which should inform the discussion.

There’s a big difference between a 60-year-old school and a 20-year-old school

Riza Jenkins points out that teachers are currently dealing with HVAC issues, drafts, safety concerns, and that there’s a huge need for improvements in the schools. She has visited every single school in our district because she serves on the Finance, Facilities, and Operations committee. She points out that “a lot of our schools are just not okay” and the need is there.

Some of our schools were not designed for exceptional children needs

Meredith Ballew brought up the fact that the schools built in the 1950s are not designed for PT rooms and speech therapy and different spaces with aides and adaptive equipment. It’s really important to consider how to improve that. ADA was not taken into consideration when these schools were built.

This bond will benefit both CHCCS and Orange County Schools

Vickie Feaster Fornville makes the point that this bond is designed to help schools and facilities across our county and across both school districts. She also points out that our towns have expanded and bus routes have changed over time. Our playground are not in good shape. At one point, Phillips had an AC issue and students had to go home when the buildings reached a certain temperatures. She points out that we all need to work on this together so we can figure it out for the long term.

Modern schools are built to be flexible

Space in modern schools is built to accommodate a variety of needs over decades as things change. Our older schools have school leaders using closets as meeting spaces. They were not built with flexibility in mind.

Multi-language-learners will have better academic outcomes  if they  they are all together

The district has Spanish-language programs scattered throughout the district. There might be both pedagogical and operational benefits to consolidating those at the elementary level. Currently, we have a dual-language program at Carrboro Elementary and one at Frank Porter Graham Bilingue Elementary.  At Carrboro, students have 50% of their day in Spanish, and 50% in English. FPG has a different language allocation model; in kindergarten, the students spend 90% of their time in Spanish, and then in first grade it’s 80%. By the third grade, when kids have to first take end-of-grade tests, they are at 50/50, like Carrboro.

Helen Atkins, who runs the dual language/multi-language learner/world language programs for the district, explained during the meeting that the FPG model tends to have more support in the academic literature. It’s harder to staff, though, since you need fully bilingual teachers. It might make sense to consolidate the two programs in one building; that would allow for more resource sharing among teachers and language exposure for the kids.

Also in the mix, in this vision, would be the group the district refers to as “newcomers”– students who’ve been in the country two years or less. These students have often lived through war or other armed conflict, and have interrupted formal education. Currently, at the elementary level, they are at Northside. Ms. Atkins explained that these students often need a variety of non-academic services given their trauma histories. Being surrounded by Spanish-speaking peers could be helpful. Also, the dual-language program is popular; demand always outstrips supply. Expanding the program has been a Board topic for the last several years. Is there a way to use an existing building, or build a new school, to allow for these students to all be together? To create space for more? If so, where? It’s all on the table, and the possibilities are exciting, though, as with every other aspect of the bond, there will be tradeoffs.

The school board also received an update on the budget

All of the budget information is here. Some of the budget is dependent on what the General Assembly does in their current session. What we know is this: there’s a mandatory 3% raise in salaries for all state employees. Part of the state budget surplus may be used to bump state employees up 2% more. (Hooray for raises for teachers.) If that happens, though,  the budget impact will be greater. Since so much of our staff is funded through local funding, and we want all of our staff to be paid according to the same salary scales, state-mandated raises create knock-on effects. At any rate,we won’t know until the General Assembly session ends in July. The district plans to keep the School Board in the loop when they learn more.

We also received a bit of historical context: Before the pandemic, the school district was operating in a revenue neutral mode: the balance was pretty evened out. The pandemic brought in an influx of federal dollars which allowed everything to stay neutral to positive – even as the county did not increase what the district received. Post-pandemic, the school district experienced turnover in both classified and non-classified employees. The county commissioners encouraged the district to lean into their fund balance and give pay increases to retain employees. The commissioners did give the district more money to help but utilities, risk management, and professional services have not had any budgetary adjustments in the last several years and all of those costs have also gone up.

The general fund balance has decreased over time because of these factors. Also, some positions are funded by state funds and some are funded by local funds. Over 50% of our Thinking about the bond referendum needs to be informed by operational needs. Where we can maximize operational efficiencies through money from the bond, we should; that will help us save money down the line.

My takeaway is that the state legislative body is trying to destroy public education and our school district is doing what it can, and cutting costs where it can, but it would not surprise me if further cuts need to be made. We should direct our ire at the NCGA.

Also of note:

The board recognized Pride Month 🏳️‍🌈 and the Emerging Leaders Program.

The third grade dual language class at Carrboro Elementary School petitions the board to reduce the use of single-use plastics in school cafeterias. They interviewed the Director of Food Services at CES and made their case with a petition, excellent signs, and a good presentation about the number of forks and spoons used. Nice job third graders, and great use of data!

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....