CHAPEL HILL - County and school leaders are planning some hard, creative decisions to meet growing enrollment and build on existing pre-kindergarten programs with limited money.
The county and schools must look at more than the next five years and plan for different scenarios, commissioners Chairwoman Bernadette Pelissier said last week at a meeting of county and school leaders.
Commissioner Barry Jacobs highlighted two key questions: What are the local values, and what should leaders do about them.
“I think that will be the part where we’re all going to have to do some creative thinking,” he said. “What other models are out there? … What other ways can we use space in the community that may not be in the schools but that can be associated with the schools?”
The Orange County Schools system serves 189 students in nine pre-kindergarten classes, while the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system serves 222 students in 18 classes, schools leaders said. Both have waiting lists, because they lack money and space, officials said.
But pre-K students are not counted as part of overall enrollment, which is nearing capacity in the city schools. Elementary School No. 11, expected to serve 585 students in the Northside community off Church Street, will open just in time to ease the crunch, city schools Superintendent Tom Forcella said.
At issue is the Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, or SAPFO, created in 2003. It measures student enrollment each November, and when projected new students exceed limits – 105 percent of elementary school capacity, 107 percent of middle school capacity and 110 percent of high school capacity – it restricts residential development.
CHCCS’s elementary capacity is 5,244 students.
The SAPFO number representing 105 percent of elementary capacity is 5,506 students, which the city schools are expected to exceed in November with a projected 5,520 students, officials said.Pre-K performance
CHCCS Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Todd LoFrese said studies at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute show students who attended pre-K classes perform better in elementary school.
The commissioners agreed and expressed support for expanding pre-K programs.
“Part of what we do is because we care about kids. My school board innards say to me that what we do is about providing access to opportunity for these kids. The word we have not used that we all know makes pre-K so important is readiness,” said Commissioner Valerie Foushee, who served seven years on the city school board.
The goal will be balancing the schools’ needs with growing county expenses, including potential EMS/911 system upgrades, a new county jail, a Southwestern Branch Library, and a community center and future sewer system in the Rogers Road neighborhood off Eubanks Road.
The county is limited in how much debt it can assume before it affects the county’s ability to borrow money, County Manager Frank Clifton said.
The county’s annual debt service is set at a maximum of 15 percent of the county’s operating budget, he said. Currently, the debt capacity is $27.9 million, with a 13.6 percent debt service.
The capital budget is roughly $193 million through 2017, county Finance and Administrative Services Director Clarence Grier said. About $71.3 million of that is for schools capital projects.
The good news, Clifton said, “is we’ve been doing a lot of debt refinancing and gained lot of debt capacity” by negotiating for lower interest rates. But the debt capacity is going to be an “overbearing issue” if the county has to revalue property or can’t raise taxes, he said. The revaluation was delayed this year and could be put off until 2016 if necessary, he said.
County school board member Stephen Halkiotis said the commissioners and school boards share the same sense of compassion and responsibility. They could form a smaller group to talk through the options, he said.
“The two school systems are doing a service not only for Orange County and the state of North Carolina but to the nation. If we don’t take this responsibility upon our shoulders as Orange County has done for many, many years, do you know where these [students] are going to end up?” Halkiotis said.
Pelissier also suggested including the Partnership for Young Children, since it has pertinent statistics and know where the money is coming from.
County Schools Superintendent Patrick Rhodes said the county schools are expanding pre-K classes as money becomes available. Although more families are interested in those programs, the state has been scaling them back and cutting funds, he said.
City and county schools are older in general and not designed to include pre-K classes unless retrofitted with smaller, in-class restrooms; self-contained playgrounds; and size-appropriate furniture.
LoFrese said the city school district’s 10 elementary schools are using mobile classrooms, moving programs and renovating basement areas in older schools to add pre-K space. Each room incurs extra expenses for equipment and licensing, he said.
“You get into the situation we’re in where you’re looking for every available spot to place a student,” he said.
But superintendents for both systems said all students are making big gains. Rhodes complemented the commissioners for going against the grain to fully fund the county schools in tough times.
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