Orange County

Location of school board meeting changed to accommodate parents upset over plans for Chapel Hill High School

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials say Triangle construction cost increases could add another $20 million to a plan to renovate and rebuild parts of Chapel Hill High School (pictured in this artist’s rendering).
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials say Triangle construction cost increases could add another $20 million to a plan to renovate and rebuild parts of Chapel Hill High School (pictured in this artist’s rendering). Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

The school board has changed the location of its Thursday, Dec. 7 business meeting to accommodate what could be a large crowd of Chapel Hill High School parents upset over a recommendation to put a major rebuild of the school on hold.

The meeting will be held at Smith Middle School, 9201 Seawell School Rd., beginning at 7 p.m.

The recommendation to renovate the Lincoln Center campus before rebuilding Chapel Hill High School has some parents upset and rethinking their vote for the 2016 school bond referendum.

Beth Vollins, the parent of a ninth-grader at the school and a sixth-grader who will attend in the coming years, said last week that she never would have voted for the $73 million school bond had she known the Lincoln Center redevelopment project would get priority over Chapel Hill High.

Chapel Hill High, which is in great disrepair, was to get most – $48 million – of the bond money while the remaining $25 million was earmarked for Lincoln Center.

“I’m upset by what I view as a change in priorities,” Vollins said.

High construction costs, driven by a building boon in the Triangle, have caused the price of the two projects to soar to an estimated $102 million, a 40 percent increase over the initial projection.

The total bill for the Lincoln Center project is now about $38 million. The Chapel Hill High project is now expected to cost about $64 million at completion.

As a result, district officials have been forced to choose between the two, and recommended moving ahead with the Lincoln Center project. Meanwhile, the Chapel Hill High project would be put on hold.

The Chapel Hill High project includes two new academic buildings, and renovation to the Cultural Arts and gymnasium/cafeteria buildings. It would address flooding and air quality issues, safety and security concerns and correct handicap access issues, among others.

Vollins said it feels now as though the Chapel Hill High rebuild was placed on the ballot to secure money to redevelop Lincoln Center, which would include new buildings for pre-K classrooms and Phoenix Academy, the district’s alternative school, and new administrative offices that would be built atop the preschool.

“I feel like it was a bait and switch,” Vollins said.

‘School deserves it’

For interim Chapel Hill High Principal Steve Scroggs, the way forward is clear.

“I want them to do Chapel Hill High because the school deserves it,” said Scroggs, a 1969 graduate of the school who was among its first students when it opened in 1966.

Scroggs, who acknowledged the need for the Lincoln Center redevelopment, said the planned renovations could be put on hold until a later date.

He said the rebuilds of the academic buildings are critical,

“That would take care of my classroom-capacity issues, and it gets my environmental things take care of and it gets rid of my 18 trailers,” Scroggs said.

“It’s a tough place to keep pleasant for kids,” he said. “In one classroom the temperature might be 89 degrees, and at the end of the building you might be lucky to get to 69 [degrees].”

Vollins, and a growing chorus of Chapel Hill High parents, have begun an intense lobbying campaign to convince school board members to make the high school the priority.

The project won’t be bid on until the spring, but it is expected to come in about $20 million over budget.

Brian Lange, the parent of three elementary school children who lives in the high school’s attendance zone, also would not have voted for the school bonds if the Chapel Hill High improvements were not included.

Lange hopes the improvements are made before his children, the oldest of which is a fifth-grader, enroll in the high school.

“Chapel Hill High is falling apart at the seams, and there are health and safety concerns – and what if it gets worse?” Lange said. “I don’t want to pay the same amount of taxes and send my kids to a school that’s sub par when I could move about a one-and-a-half miles away and my kids would go to a different high school,” Lange said.

Lange has drafted a petition he hopes parents will sign, urging the school board to make Chapel Hill High the priority instead of Lincoln Center. The petition is available on the Care2Petition website. More than 1,200 people have signed the petition.

He also wants parents to show up for the Dec. 7 school board meeting so their voices are heard on the matter.

Lincoln Center project favored

At a recent meeting of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, school board members clearly appeared in favor of moving ahead with the Lincoln Center project. Commissioners made it clear that the board would not receive any financial help from the county.

CHCCS has until Dec. 26 to accept the low-base bid of $34.3 million – almost $10 million above the $25 million earmarked for the Lincoln project. The district would use about $8 million from its unassigned fund balance and other capital savings accounts.

School officials said moving forward with the project would give the district its long-awaited, centralized per-kindergarten center for 189 students. Once operating, the center would free up classroom space in elementary schools, as the district tries to meet state mandated smaller K-3 class sizes.

“Lincoln pre-K is needed to meet legal requirements for class-size changes and as the linchpin to our overall elementary project work (the additional capacity is needed for flexibility when we do work at Carrboro Elementary, Ephesus Elementary, Estes Hill, and Seawell in particular,” school board Chairman James Barrett wrote in a letter to residents inquiring about the projects. “Safety at these open-campus elementary schools is just as important as Chapel Hill High School.”

Vollins said the school district should consider putting both projects on hold until another bond referendum can raise the money to do both.

But even that wouldn’t guarantee both projects would get done, Vollins said.

“Why would any of us trust the school board again?” Vollins asked.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645