Questions worth answering on public schools

Chapel Hill News, October 1st, 2003 (provided by author)


If a merger of CHCCS and OCS is the answer proposed by some in the BOCC, what questions were asked? What additional critical questions need to be answered? This countyís merger analysis process is being rushed through in a non-election year, while avoiding the thoughtful, hard questions of importance for our students, families and teachers. Public hearings are scheduled before critical information is available. Other state studies of school mergers took over a year, and involved local resources such as the Institute of Government of RTI. The commissioners should broadly involve the community and the elected school boards in setting the goals and the means of accomplishing any changes in the school districts. We do not have a racially segregated system, which was the original legislative reason to allow a forced merger without the participation of voters or school boards.

Viable alternatives to merger, such as changes to the county-wide tax, or an Orange County Schools district tax, and additional collaboration have not been explored in depth. There may be some justifications for differences in funding, e.g. CHCCS has more exceptional ed and limited English proficiency students, and capital costs and living expenses are higher. What follows is a view of the right questions to ask and answer.  They fall into several categories: taxation, capital expenses, neighborhood schools and bussing, teacher pay, education and curriculum changes.

A school merger would necessitate an immediate tax increase for Northern Orange , while implementing a spending freeze for all in CHCCS. The Census Bureau reported (N&O front page on 9/27/03 ) that the median household income in NC fell 4.4%, making our state one of the worst hit in the economic slump. The numbers of families in poverty (A family of 4 living on less than $18,000) rose to 13.3%. Can the commissioners justify a forced, significant tax increase in such a climate? The merger report estimates a 17cents/$100 increase for residents in the OCS district, with an assumed increase in valuation of 25%, leading to an increase in todayís dollars of about 21cents/$100 above the current 83cents/$100.  This is a 25% property tax increase in OCS district. Would there be changes in other county funding to attempt to reduce this? Who would be affected?

It appears from the merger report that a lot of bussing for CHCCS students might be used to avoid building the middle school currently planned for the Chapel Hill Township School/Park campus in northern Carrboro.  This would defer the approx. $18M it costs to build a second MS.  But does this mean that everyone north of Homestead Rd. must see their children bussed to Efland? It is 17 miles, and would be almost an hour on a school bus each way. Or would they be placed into Stanback MS, which is much closer, forcing re-districting of a large number of families currently at Stanback? Is there any other choice? The merger report does not consider these questions.

Academic achievement is heavily correlated with parental involvement and an environment supportive of education. OCS needs foreign language teachers in elementary schools and more AP classes in high schools. CHCCS needs additional ESL and special ed resources. Both districts parents are involved in and proud of their childrenís schools. Parental involvement in remote schools will inevitably suffer. Long bus rides are wasted time imposed on students, and would clearly pull down the achievement of those students who would no longer have enough time to get their homework done, or play outdoors while daylight lingered, or read a book. It is time for smart-growth, walkable-bikeable community advocates to speak up about the need to place schools near their intended population. Merger without planning will hurt community schools.

Orange County School district had over 600 unused elementary school spaces last year, so the merger study suggests that no new ES #11 need be built until those are filled. Will this also require long bus rides, and for whom? In the meantime, can those empty classrooms be put to productive use? Voting records of recent elections show that CHCCS voters pass each school bond (as well as sewers, parks, senior centers) for the entire county, building for OCS ahead of need, while CHCCS is never fully caught up on its capacity and continues to add trailers. Will those same voters be so eager if new schools are located a long bus ride away? The rural buffer was deliberately created to maintain separate urban areas, the distance it provides also serves as a barrier to practicable merger of the separate school systems.

Teacher retention is another critical piece of quality education. In a merger, would the teacher supplement in CHCCS be immediately reduced to the level in OCS, or frozen for 3-5 years allowing inflation to reduce its value gradually? We already have a high turnover rate (N&O 9/19/03 ), higher in CHCCS than OCS. The cost of housing for teachers living in CHCCS district is on average higher than if they live elsewhere. Teachers with more experience also get paid more. How many of the teachers can actually afford to live in CH/C now? How many would be forced into longer commutes, or would look elsewhere for a job, by a loss of the salary supplement provided by the school district tax?

Regarding academic curriculum, parents have a legitimate concern that their children should be offered a wide array of choices at the appropriate level of challenge.  It is common for CHCCS students to approach college with many AP courses. Will the same broad variety (33 available) be continued? Will OCS courses in agriculture and cosmetology continue to be available for those choosing a career track? With merger, it would become possible to claim for the entire county school system the highest SAT scores in the state (see SAT report on DPI web site). This should be good for landowners who want to sell to real-estate developers, especially with UNCís Carolina North beckoning new employees soon. What about those homeowners who have no desire to sell? Are developers and realtors the biggest winners of a school merger?

The county should pay for a serious study of the issues regarding capital costs, curriculum changes, teacher pay, and family impacts, using extensive public involvement, and a realistic due date. This would provide information suitable for public discussion and referendum, rather than precipitous action Involving the citizenry is important to build support for any needed changes. In the meantime, nothing prevents OCS parents from clearly identifying their funding needs and curriculum plans to the BOCC. I support well-reasoned efforts to improve the schools, but if a substantial funding increase is required for OCS, it does not clearly require merger, and we deserve serious investigation both of the alternatives, and what merger really would change in our schools.


Biographical Information: Matthew Barton has been involved with capital needs analysis for the public schools for a decade. He is a founding member of INFORM, a citizens group that advocates for careful analysis of school funding and organizational changes.



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