Chapel Hill, city schools seek closer ties

tgrubb@newsobserver.comOctober 25, 2013 

— The city schools and the town have overlapping needs and should find more ways to work together, local leaders Wednesday.

“If we were planning together, or at least informing each other a little about the direction that we’re going ... then maybe we’d be able to synergize those efforts to the benefit of both the school system and the town,” Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said.

School board Chairwoman Shell Brownstein said board members would like to talk again.

Town Manager Roger Stancil said he and schools Superintendent Tom Forcella found mutual interests in the town’s 2020 Plan for development and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools’ 2013-18 Long-Range Plan.

The town is talking now about how to offer more youth activities and services under a 2020 Plan goal of creating a place for everyone. The town is also planning a blueprint to make Chapel Hill a safer, bike-friendly town.

Chapel Hill Public Library Director Susan Brown and town Parks and Recreation Director Butch Kisiah said their agencies also serve young people and are invested in their education and personal growth.

“They’re all our kids,” Kisiah said.

The city schools have 12,206 students enrolled and grow by about 150 students each year, said Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for support services. It’s a diverse system: Nearly 50 percent are in minority groups, they speak 72 languages, and about 10 percent have low English skills, he said.

Nearly 29 percent of students also receive free or reduced-price lunch because of low incomes, he said. Their families rarely have computers or the Internet to access homework and resources, creating a need for programs that offer leadership skills, tutoring, mentoring and help for students and parents use online resources, school officials said.

Forcella said the district’s five-year plan sets out five goals for an excellent education:

• Learning through thinking and problem solving

• Narrowing the achievement gap

• A culture of innovation and excitement for learning

• Professional staff development

• Accountability

“I really feel glad that we can share our direction and some of the things that we’re working on, especially some major types of changes, so maybe we can anticipate in terms of our planning for the future,” Forcella said.

Schools also are affected by town land-use and other decisions. More single family and affordable rental housing can bring more families with children and a need for more schools, redistricting and other changes.

Too many students, however, can trigger the Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, a local agreement that freezes residential construction when there’s no more classroom space.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners is considering a $43 million middle school and roughly $170 million for repairs and upgrades to the 10 oldest city schools. The county has money to build the middle school in its capital improvements plan but could seek a voter-approved bond for the rest.

Land is limited and expensive; the town should consider the effect of its decisions on county revenues, which pay for schools, board member Mia Burroughs said.

“Within our district, we’re not super concerned about where the kids are. What we are concerned about is how do we pay for the schools and the operating costs,” she said.

Four potential middle school sites have been identified: Estes Drive Extension, across from the future Carolina North campus; two sites near Morris Grove Elementary School and the Greene Tract off Eubanks Road.

The town, Carrboro and Orange County jointly own the Greene Tract, which is part of a Rogers Road small-area growth plan. It’s located outside the town limits but is being considered for Chapel Hill’s extra-territorial jurisdiction, subject to the town’s land-use regulations.

Council members said the town could make better decisions with more information about the schools.

Council member Sally Greene said it’s also important that school officials join town discussions about growth, if only to answer questions.

“When there’s no information or just a gap of information, all kinds of speculations can happen, and it’s just not ideally helpful,” she said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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