Orange County

Chapel Hill High renovation will protect students, modernize school, principal says

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials say Triangle construction cost increases have increased the cost of renovating and rebuilding parts of Chapel Hill High School (pictured in this artist’s rendering) to $68 million.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials say Triangle construction cost increases have increased the cost of renovating and rebuilding parts of Chapel Hill High School (pictured in this artist’s rendering) to $68 million. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

The shooting threat that brought police to Chapel Hill High School this month and kept more than half of the students home the next day could be a somewhat lesser concern if renovations start this summer.

A $68 million construction project will add more safety and security features, from a centralized entrance to better visibility, to the open-style campus built in 1966.

It's one of three problems that Principal Sulura Jackson said affect teachers and students every day. The aging campus at 1709 High School Road also suffers mechanical breakdowns that leave classrooms too hot or too cold, and mold and flooding that can make parts of the building unusable. Spotty Internet access also keeps the school from bringing 21st-century technology and student laptops into the classroom.

Sulura Jackson
Sulura Jackson Contributed

"I just encourage you to consider the educational impact that a new facility would help happen at Chapel Hill," Jackson told the Chapel Hill Town Council. "It's way past needed, and I think it would definitely take it to the next level, which is where it needs to be."

The council held a public hearing Tuesday. If the project is approved May 23, construction could start this summer and be completed in late 2020. Enrollment could be expanded by 105 students.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board also will discuss the project — and another project planned for the Lincoln Center campus on South Merritt Mill Road — on April 24.

The CHHS plan demolishes two buildings and removes 14 mobile classrooms from the 92-acre site. It replaces them with three new buildings, a courtyard and outdoor amphitheater, and preserves an academic building on the south side of campus and the Hanes Theatre. A soccer field would be relocated.

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Another big change could be a new, main driveway connected to Seawell School Road via the Smith Middle School driveway to the south. The driveway would have to cross Jolly Branch, a stream that runs between the schools, and a watershed area.

That raised concerns for council members, who also questioned how the district would handle more traffic on Seawell School Road.

Pam Hemminger
Pam Hemminger Contributed

"I'm excited about the opportunities," Mayor Pam Hemminger said, "but we do need to figure out how the traffic's going to flow, what's going to happen at peak times.”

Environmental engineer Pamela Schultz shared her plan with the council for creating two dropoff locations – one on High School Road and one on Seawell School Road — to ease traffic tie-ups. She also suggested converting the construction entrance to a greenway.

Julie McClintock also recommended adding a pedestrian path at the stream crossing if the new driveway doesn’t work. An off-road path might encourage more parents to let children walk or bike to school, she said.

Other road improvements include a new right turn lane from Homestead Road, a left turn lane from High School Road and at the High School-Seawell School Road intersection, and new sidewalks, bike lanes, pedestrian crossings and a bus stop shelter. The changes would rely on officers to direct traffic at High School and Seawell School roads and at the Smith Middle School driveway.

Todd LoFrese
Todd LoFrese

The renovated school would have space for 1,625 students. However, Todd LoFrese, the district's assistant superintendent for support services, argued against capping enrollment at full capacity. That would require the district to do a new traffic study and possibly make other road improvements before letting in more students.

The enrollment number should trigger the district instead to think about adding space, he said, while allowing flexibility in enrollment.

A delay in approving the project, officials and parents said, could push the cost higher.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners still must decide how to pay back the bond debt. Deputy County Manager Travis Myren has suggested collecting more money over the next few years to cover the costs when they peak around 2022-23 as a way to ease the overall tax impact.

Voters approved a $120 million bond in 2016 to pay for Chapel Hill and Orange County schools projects — roughly one-third of the total needed to make critical repairs and renovations. A 3- to 5-cent property-tax-rate increase was expected to repay the bond debt.

The county tax rate now is 83.77 cents per $100 in property value, generating a $2,513.10 tax bill on a home valued at $300,000.

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The city schools originally planned to spend $72.1 million to renovate Chapel Hill High School and redevelop the district's Lincoln Center campus to include new administrative offices, a districtwide pre-K school and a larger Phoenix Academy high school.

But regional construction costs have ballooned, increasing the cost of both projects to a total of more than $100 million. The school board decided in December to move ahead with Chapel Hill High and delay the Lincoln Center.

That change means the county now has to borrow the bulk of the money — $64.4 million — in June, rather than over a few years. The amount that could be left for Lincoln Center is now estimated at $2.7 million, Myren said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb
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