After a process lasting over a year, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education made the decision to prioritize funding toward a project to renovate Chapel Hill High School in December last year.
Bonds sold by Orange County were originally meant to pay for improvements to Chapel Hill High School and the Lincoln Center, but it became clear the school district could not afford both projects as bids came back on construction costs.
Rani Dasi, president of the CHCCS Board, said she believed the bids for the Lincoln Center were higher than expected because of construction inflation due to natural disasters raising demand for contractors.
Dasi said improvements to the Lincoln Center were meant to construct a best-in-class, consolidated location for preschools, which would be moved out of elementary schools. This would have opened up classrooms in the elementary schools, reducing class sizes and enabling construction to be done on those buildings.
“The challenge right now is that we have significant need for renovations at our elementary school but no place to put students while we do that work,” Dasi said.
Although there is no official timeline to return to the Lincoln Center project yet, Dasi said the district is working to craft a plan to meet the needs of its elementary schools and students.
Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich, whose children attended CHHS, described herself as an outspoken supporter of renovations for the high school, which she said was one of the district's oldest.
Rich said improvements to the Lincoln Center were the focal point at the start of the bond process. Even after bids for the project came in over budget, she said the school board had still hoped to complete the construction but funds are simply not sufficient.
Other renovations to the Lincoln Center would have included an expansion of the Phoenix Academy, an alternative high school located beside the center, Rich said.
Lisa Kaylie, Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA council president, said she had hoped the bonds would raise enough money to fund renovations to CHHS, the Lincoln Center and other schools throughout the district.
“There’s an additional 200 million in school repairs and improvements that need to be made, pretty critical ones, over the next couple years that aren’t even funded yet,” Kaylie said.
Once the CHCCS Board receives the final bids for the renovations to CHHS, Dasi said the board will allocate the bonds' remaining funds to school-improvements throughout the district. The longer these renovations are put off, the more she fears they will cost taxpayers.
“My hope is that within the next three to five years we will have identified a funding source to address the significant capital needs overall within the district,” Dasi said. “We will continue to have conversations with our county commissioners on that, and we’re so grateful that they’ve been collaborative in this area.”
While Orange County does fund CHCCS, Rich said the BOCC does not have any official say in school board policy. She said she credits public pressure for the decision to move forward with improvements to CHHS, with concerned parents having a large influence on school board’s decision.
“The parents that were contacting me about this, not knowing that we don’t make the decision, were very angry,” Rich said. “They were very specific about blaming the county commissioners for not making sure that Chapel Hill High was going to get built.”
Rich said BOCC must hold public hearings for any item placed on a referendum and held two in late 2016.
“When we put the bond on the ballot, we’re actually asking people if they’d like to tax themselves for schools,” Rich said. “The bond money specifically has to go to schools, and it can’t go to operations, it has to go for capital needs.
This is especially critical for CHHS, which Rich said suffers from aging facilities as water damage that erodes the learning environment for faculty and students alike.
“I just hope we keep our focus in the county on how we’re going to repair and rebuild our crumbling schools,” Kaylie said.
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