Members of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and the county’s two school districts met Tuesday night to discuss the districts’ proposals on how to best improve their schools.
“We are united in a common cause — to collaborate on the education of young people in Orange County, despite what’s going on in Raleigh,” board chairperson Earl McKee said to open the meeting.
The meeting was meant to inform commissioners about the projects that would be funded if the board puts the proposed $125 million bond referendum on the ballot in 2016.
In a rare joint presentation, representatives from both Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools began the night with a video laying out the three keys to students’ success — excellent teachers, community support and adequate space. While the first two items were checked off, the video went on to show multiple flaws with the county’s schools, such as water-damaged ceilings, broken floor tiles and exposed wires.
In its request, Orange County Schools asked for funding to improvement its transportation station, cafeteria facilities and its safety procedures.
Interim Deputy Superintendent Pam Jones, who represented Orange County Schools, said the system has to take drastic catchup measures now to keep its buildings from being unusable.
But Orange County Schools’ largest request was for improvements to Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough. The school system requested $14.7 million to help expand and improve the school’s facilities. The school is designed to accommodate 1,000 students but has 1,149 students currently enrolled, which representatives say presents potential safety hazards.
Jeff Nash, executive director for community relations for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said the $125 million from the county’s bond referendum would be split between the county’s two school districts, with approximately $75 million going to CHCCS Schools.
He said the money the city schools would receive would go primarily to two projects — a complete redo of Chapel Hill High School and building a consolidated preschool at the system’s current central office at Lincoln Center.
Chapel Hill High School would use $52.4 million of the system’s allotted amount over four years, according to the school system’s Capital Investment Plan. This money will go to a complete redesign of the high school, including tearing down a building, renovating current buildings and connecting the building internally for safety purposes.
The investment plan designates $16.1 million to building the consolidated preschool. The remaining money would go to smaller projects at Glenwood Elementary and Ephesus Elementary.
After praising both boards’ efforts, Commissioner Mark Dorosin questioned the strategic long-term planning of the proposals. He suggested in the coming years the county might have to face building an entirely new elementary school, and should plan for that now by adding floors onto schools instead of just smaller fixes.
“It’s an evolving process, and given the increasing development in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, limited land availability and increasing costs, it’s an ongoing process that needs to be monitored,” Dorosin said. “We need to maintain flexibility. It’s about having foresight and recognizing there are a whole bunch of variables that we don’t know that we need to know.”
In the most contentious moment of the night, Orange County Chairperson Barry Jacobs suggested hiring a third-party professional to rank each school system’s priorities on an objective scale from one to five, with one being a high priority such as safety and structural soundness.
McKee echoed Jacobs’ remarks, saying this would take the politics out of the decision and make the process more understandable for the public when voting on a referendum.
The suggestion of a third-party review raised eyebrows from both school boards, with Orange County School Board member Stephen Halkiotis giving an impassioned speech about why the bond is not a political issue.
“There’s no dog in this fight,” Halkiotis said. “I don’t know if this has gone by people, but the fact that Pam Jones (from Orange County Schools) and Todd LoFrese (from Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools) stood up together and put both systems’ emblems up together showed there’s no dog in the fight.
Mike Kelley, chairperson of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education, said Jacobs’ suggestion compares the district like apples and oranges and would unfairly place the two against each other in order to have their projects funded.
“If we don’t go into this thing united and holding hands, this thing will fail. We need to be doing things for people," Halkiotis said.
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