By Rose Laudicina
With budgets shrinking and enrollment on the rise, both the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and the Orange County Schools districts are encountering problems with where to house students in their aging facilities.
One of the biggest groups they are having trouble finding space for happens to be their smallest learners, the pre-kindergarten classes.
Both boards shared their concerns regarding space for pre-K classrooms and their districtsâ€™ aging schools and facilities with the Orange County Commissioners at a joint meeting last Thursday.
â€œWe are really struggling with our old buildings,â€ Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella said. â€œWe need pre-K programs, and it is important that they have the right kind of space,â€ he added.
Currently, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) serves 222 pre-K students in 18 classrooms, with at least one in each of their 10 elementary schools. Orange County Schools serve 189 students in nine classrooms.
Both districts also currently have waiting lists for their pre-K classrooms, and while school officials say they would like to accommodate everyone, there is simply no more room and not enough money.
â€œIt would be wonderful if we could serve more [pre-K students],â€ Orange County Schools Superintendent Patrick Rhodes said. â€œBut the funding is not there at this time to do that.â€
And just as the funding isnâ€™t there, the space isnâ€™t either. Having pre-K classrooms in an elementary school requires outfitting the classroom space to meet specific standards for a younger age group that typical elementary school classrooms do not have to meet.
While new schools are being built with designated pre-kindergarten classrooms, Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for support services for CHCCS, explained to commissioners that in order to create a pre-K classroom, which older schools in both districts werenâ€™t originally built with, requires age-appropriate items such as in-class restrooms, smaller furniture and a separate playground.
In addition to the high cost to retrofit a classroom, removing a classroom and designating it as pre-K can negatively affect the schoolâ€™s capacity.
Pre-K classrooms, and therefore their students, do not count in the Schools, Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (SAPFO) overall enrollment numbers. This means that while an elementary school in the CHHCS district might be sitting right at its SAPFO cap of 105 percent enrollment, they would actually be over that cap due to the pre-K classrooms at the school.
SAPFO is measured in November. CHCCSâ€™ SAPFO cap of 105 percent capacity is 5,506 students. However, LoFrese told the commissioners that by November, CHCCS is projected to have 5,520 students enrolled.
â€œIt shows there is more need then we can serve,â€ county Commissioner Pam Hemminger said. â€œThere is not enough funding, and there is not enough space.â€
The board of commissioners told the two school boards that while they understand and are sympathetic to their capacity problems and how that affects their ability to provide access and opportunity for Orange County children, they also are operating on a tight budget and have obligations to serve Orange County residents beyond just the schools.
â€œWe are all very supportive of education,â€ Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier said, â€œbut we also have other needs [in the county] as well.â€
Pelissier, along with other board members, shared some of the countyâ€™s pressing issues that require significant funding.
â€œWhile we always hear your budget needs, you donâ€™t always know what our big-picture budget needs are,â€ Pelissier added.
In addition to looking into how to finance the two school districtsâ€™ needs, the county is dealing with possible expenses for projects such as revamping the EMS and 911/communications systems, constructing a new jail and building a community center for the Rogers Road neighborhood.