Building a third high school: slow and steady wins the race

I read in the Chapel Hill Herald this weekend that administrators in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School System are starting to get a little nervous about getting our third high school open on schedule for 2007 (it was originally supposed to open in 2005, oops). With schools already overcrowded (and classes pretty big even when they're below capacity), I'm completely in favor of opening more schools.

But... I don't get why the school people are making it look like the Town of Carrboro's approval is the sole obstacle to timely construction. The article clearly states that the project was repeatedly delayed way before it got to the current development approval stage - Carrboro cannot be blamed for that. In addition, I really don't like the idea of rushing the development approval process. As a Planning Board member, I participate in this process in Chapel Hill, and I can tell you every project we review comes out better for having gone through the process. Being reviewed by various citizens and elected officials leads to better designs and to plans that fit with the community's values.

The Herald article also says that it's actually the town that is waiting on the schools to answer some questions about the project. So what's the hold-up again?


What? The CH-C schools casting blame on the Board of Aldermen? Shocking!

This shuffle-along-the-hurry-up-it's-too-late thing works pretty well for these guys. Always stick with a winning strategy.

I think it's the reporter who decided how to lead and slant the story. If you read on, the facts seem pretty well reported and support your assertions that the "fault" for the delay can be spread around to a number of reasons.

One thing interested me, and that was the parking. I counted about 190 +/- listed staff for Chapel Hill HIgh on its website. I would assume a new school would be similarly staffed. That doesn't include substitute teachers, volunteers, parents, other visitors, kids who drive because of after school activities, kids who drive because they work after school, staff that isn't listed on the website and so on. 328 spaces seems low to me for a school that size. Does anyone know if there is a recommended ratio of staff to other parking needs for a project like this one?

I don't know about the recommended ratio, but keep in mind that this school is being built in the watershed. I know the location of this site was a long and agonizing decision, but I'm still baffled by the selected site. Besides being in the watershed, it's very rocky, elevated and outside of town limits. Being outside the town limits means that a large portion of the students do not have access via the city bus system. Nor are there sidewalks or bike lanes coming from the south.

Requiring students and staff to use public transportation by limiting parking spaces is a good strategy for protecting the delicate environment upon which the school is being built, but it may not be feasible for the way schools do their scheduling.

Thank you Ruby.I wondered the same thing myself.I hope that the board is not getting set up to take the heat if the school is late.I am also worried about being pushed to make a hasty last minute approval when after many months we are suddenly in need of fast approval and "oh by the way those suggestions CArrboro has won't be included-sorry not enough time now" ! I've seen that happen many time.

I made a mistake earlier. While Ray Road is zoned as water shed, the high school property is not.

Despite my self-oath never to post on OP again, here I go.

If someone sees fit to respond to me with an ad hominem confabulation, that is someone else's problem. I do not intend to take part even in substantive responses to this posting.

Yes, there were earlier delays, especially with the Orange County Commission, and especially with Barry Jacobs and Margaret Brown. They will share the blame if this school does not open in 2007. Jacobs seems to be pushing merger by squeezing the CHCCS of construction funding (in this school's case, by limiting it to 800 now, when the additional 400 spaces will be needed relatively soon, and at much much greater disruption than if built to start with).

No matter what preceeded, right now, the power to get the school open on time lies with Carrboro Aldermen. If they want a school with no broad extracurricular activities -- because we have nowhere near the municipal bus system needed to get every HS student within a couple of blocks of home till midnight, seven nights a week -- then a super-duper minimum of parking spaces matches that notion. Otherwise, it does not make sense. Please, just go to CHS or ECHS on the night of a concert or musical or triple-header basketball game.

The school system is planning for 1 parking space for every 5 students. As Anita says, the plan supports 328 spaces with room for another 120 to be built in the future. That's a 35% coverage. They are providing 13% coverage on bike racks. (per current plans)

Some data:

1520 regular capacity
280 current mobile capacity
1800 total capacity
1847 projected Fall 2005 enrollment

1515 regular capacity
160 current mobile capacity
1675 total capacity
1703 projected Fall 2005 enrollment

Projected Fall 2005 enrollment in excess of standard capacity (3035):
515 (mostly in mobile units)

To repeat: We are already (Fall 2005) in a deficit of 515 regular classroom spots. The third high school is projected to open two years later, and at a capacity of only 800.

Commentary: We should presume the school will expand to 1200 in the near to medium term. The Commissioners have already micro-managed the site plans. Carrboro is right to give them a thoughtful look. But it could have pushed this onto its agenda earlier, and the fate of the school's opening is now in Carrboro's hands. The CHCCS needs this high school asap.

Actual enrollment for CHHS (Fall 2004) was 1773 and for East it was 1638. While the high schools and the middle schools exceeded their projected enrollments, the elementary schools had a much lower than expected enrollment. If that trend were to continue, by the time the new high school is ready, the district-wide high school population would be smaller than current enrollment.

As long as we continue to plan for and build schools without thought for how they might be re-conceptualized, we will continue to have debates about placement and expense. Why do we need separate campuses for elementary, middle and high schools? Why couldn't we build them on the same tracts of land so that they could share athletic fields and parking spaces? Why couldn't we look at scheduling that would accommodate teacher and student access to public transportation? There are any number of design changes that could make schools cheaper, would eliminate sprawl, and could potentially reduce environmental impact without reducing the quality of education our children deserve. I applaud the districts efforts to follow green/low-impact building practices, but I don't think they go far enough.

Hey, Gang--

Been busy w/ pressing family business lately, hence my MIA status--Trying to reemerge.

Just a note on school approval--We're waiting for the application to get to us. If there are hang-ups from the Town's end it will be a result of the applicants lack of understanding of what the ordinance requires. Developers of all stripes complain that our process is arduous and slow. A fair criticism, but our citizens have demanded that careful attention be paid to stormwater management, transportation management, and aesthetic issues in every case. All of these aspects require careful and thorough work by developers' engineers and designers. If our Town engineer is required to re-enginner the project because the applicants' folks didn't (or couldn't) do the work--Or, if applicants fail to solicit public input in early phases to anticipate, and deal with, potential objections--it ends up taking longer and costing more--simple as that.

Everyone on the Board would like to ensure that the school is opened as expeditiously as possible, but we cannot short-circuit our review process as a matter of fairness and providing the level of development oversight, and public input that our citizens expect--nay, demand. It is in the best interests of the faculty, students parents and Town to ensure that it's done right the first time.


Good for the Board of Alderpeople. I honestly thought it wold take months.

Now--if we can just get this "Academies" thing settled...

Parents of Elementary and Middle School aged children--PLEASE PAY ATTENTION. This is going to affect your families. I know it's difficult to think that far ahead--but, trust me--your child will be in HS before you know it. It's not exactly EASY to find out about proposed changes, but it's not exactly difficult, either. Go to and click on "board meetings and agendas" . That will take you to a page that lets you search by date...or subject. I usually search by date--so that I can see what the board is talking about. Then--START READING. The PDF format is a bit of a pain, but it's important to stay informed.

There is also an e-mail newsletter one can sign up for...the link for that is on the main page. I prefer to do my own searching,rather than let others decide what I need to know, but then I'm a bit compulsive about such things. I mean, we receive two newspapers in our house EVEY DAY.


The Carrboro Board of Alderman approved the high school CUP.

Not to my knowledge. Seems VERY "bait and switch" to me.

This 'Academy' concept is so problematic, I don't even know where to begin: transportation, funding, unfair access... Has central staff elaborated on the positives and negatives of going this route?

"Slow and steady" costs millions of extra dollars, it turns out. Construction costs have shot up dramatically in the past few years, in part due to international materials shortages.

Thanks especially to Barry Jacobs for delaying the first high school on the south side of CHC, in the smart-growth location, where people live.

Or, here's a thought--sell that property south of town to developer--for a profit--and put the school on Eubanks. It'll be faster than trying to get it through Carrboro's approval process--even if adjustments have to be made to the plans to accomodate the different site.

Because, really, it's NOT in Carrrboro's interest to HAVE the school in their town. All that land would be pulled from the tax base. And Carrboro seems to be EVER-so-eager to increase their tax base. Not the VOTING numbers, but the tax base...


My guess is that land is cheaper in Lee county, they spend less time worrying about the siting of schools for mythical walkability (hom many HS kids do YOU know that walk to school?), and the approval process through towns is less onerous. But I don't KNOW.

I DO know that the cost of steel and concrete have gone up astronomically. There's actually an international concrete SHORTAGE. And, unlike the CHH, I AM willing to say "I told you so." If they had put that school out on Eubanks (where the County Commisioners wanted it)it would be finished, open, and within budget.

Now we'll have all sorts of angst, handwringing, and aggravation. Will I support a special bond or some such to get this thing built? Oh, probably. Holding my nose. Because we've GOT to build the thing. But I still think it's in the wrong place, particularly now that the Superintendant is making noises about it being an Academy School children WOULDN'T be required to attend, instead of a comprehensive HS. Wasn't the whole point of putting it down by Southern Village so that it could be their HS? If they make it a tech academy, or some such thing, instead of a comprehensive HS, will they provide transport for kids from outside the assigned area? WIll the kids from the ASSIGNED area be provided transport to another HS should they want a comprehensive experience? Probably not. There will be a lot of folks driving! And not very many parking spaces at the school---could get interesting for the surrounding neighborhoods.

Expect the cost estimates to increase as they do the actual site prep, BTW. The site is in a rocky, difficult area.

And a special thanks to the School Board. My kid will have gone through four years of HS in an overcrowded school. It didn't HAVE to be that way.


Melanie, you'll never get your school on Eubanks. I hear talk of trying to attract a large employer with an SAS-type campus to build on Eubanks, along with a great big road across Bolin Creek.

Ah well. I just want to see a HS BUILT. Not that it will affect MY kids in any way--we leave the school system in June 2006.


Pardon my density (sorry, couldn't resist), but Melanie, could you elaborate on what you're getting at in your comment about Carrboro's eagerness to increase the tax base, but not 'voting numbers'?


The fact that Carrboro timed an annexation so that it would fall just AFTER the election. Yeah, it's a little "Conspiracy theory-esque"--but it DOES seem odd. Perception=reality...


Interesting new publication called Schools for Successful Communities: An element of smart growth. Small is better--programming and land use. Integrated into the community, rather than sitting on urban boundaries is also better.

To find the most important holdup in the new HS process,
the school administration need only look in the mirror.
Every experienced local government learns
quickly that when you site a major public facility, whether a
school, park, landfill, or mass transit line, you must have the
site years in advance. How our world-class school system
let itself get into the position where it needed a high school
tomorrow but didn't have a site is beyond me. Now matter
it is presented, it is simply lousy planning on their part.
To blame CH two years ago for not giving up a long-planned
park site for the school, or to blame Carrboro today is
to try to find a scapegoat.

How about blaming the old Board of Commissioners, for withholding funding for the southern site for quite some time? That was the first? -- and longest? -- delay.

The Commissioners tried to force CHCSS away from the southern site, against the demographically smart thing to do. And the Commissioners hold most of the pursestrings.

But siting the school was problematic because they want so much space. The current belief is that each school must have all the same amenities, on campus, that every other school has. The Schools for Successful Communities document doesn't assume that you start with the same plan. It recommends building smaller schools--something the parents here say they want--that is in walking/biking distance from the majority of its students.

In the case of the new high school, part of the delay is coming from the expense of building on rock. If they weren't requiring so much site space, they might have been able to select a more appropriate site.

Amen, Jeff. We have largely the County Commissioners to blame for this one.

Terri, in terms of size, I actually believe that this is a pretty small High School in the scheme of things, starting with facilities for 800 capacity and possibly being expanded for up to 1200 in the future. For a High School, that is not particularly large. In terms of what the parents want, there were numerous parent reps involved in the design process to get the project where it is. Most just want it FUNDED & BUILT! While that waits, East Chapel Hill High School is nearing an enrollment of 1600 (well above capacilty) and Chapel Hill High is bursting too. There continues to be high demand for High School education in Chapel Hill.

No question about the need for the high school Bobby. But do they have to have a baseball field, soccer field (with lights), practice field, and softball (?) field? If they were just building classroom space, they might have been able to build closer into town or over by Culbreth/Scroggs. The new elementary school in Orange County is also quite large in acreage. There are different ways to think about schools--that's the point of the Successful Schools guide.

that's the point of the Successful Schools guide.

I don't think that is the point of the cited guide. This guide does not say "do without", but rather cites examples where public facilities could be shared with the school to meet the athletic field needs.

Interestingly, chccs high school 3 is cited for many design points as a model on page 26 of this guide, despite the fact that the county committee that was tasked to develop the smart growth principles never worked together to develop this list. It is my understanding that the list of principles was railroaded through at the last minute with no group process. I asked for the minutes of these meetings a while back, but they were "not available" at the time.

While there are some good tips in this guide, I am not sure that it is to be taken as the gospel on school siting.


Mark--if you don't think the point of the guide is to think differently about how schools are designed and planned, you didn't read the document. There are a lot of very good design aspects incorporated into the new high school, many of which are advocated for in the new guide. The district staff, school board, and their advisors have done a great job of making the school environmental friendly, especially in the way it deals with stormwater. still takes up too much land. Rethinking how we treat athletic fields and possibly other extracurricular spaces such as auditoriums is a major consideration in reducing the amount of land required for new schools. Why reduce the amount of land? In order to make schools more accessible to kids where they live. The new high school isn't within walking distance of most the kids it will serve.

I'm sure that it is much too late to be thinking about size and amenities and such for any new high school. And perhaps my comments, coming from an old "dinosaur" will be of no importance. But I attended a private (catholic) co-ed high school in the northeast that was so small (physically) that we had double sessions: freshmen/sophomores attended from 12 noon-5 PM; juniors/seniors from 8AM-1PM. We had about 800-1000 total students. We had no cafeteria nor a gymnasium. Our basketball team practiced at one of the public high school's gym and we held our games at another school's facilities. Same for football and tract (soccer wasn't very big then). Our swimming team used the pool at the Boy's Club.
While I wouldn't wish that situation on any CH students, we competed well (at the state level) in most sports and academically, a very high proportion of our graduates went on to college and attended excellent colleges. What we lacked in amenities was more than made up for by the teaching (most of the teachers were lay persons so they did indeed have to be paid). I guess that I would be more concerned that increased land/amenities of the CH schools affect the more critical issues such as teachers (number, salaries), teacher assistants, and classroom size.

There are certain accepted "standards" when it comes to school construction - much of this has been driven by people who are more expert than me. Fundamentally, it comes down to the enrollment numbers of students to be served by the school and the need to support them. For example, (1) it is rare that a school has more than 2 stories. A higher school could reduce the footprint of the building (a simple example - and of course would not lower the demand for support facilities required based on enrollment); (2) field rejuvination and maintenance is a big issue, when you have as many as 6 - 8 school teams using a single field over three seasons (games, practice...), night and day, weekends and weekdays; and (3) many do not realize that the 3rd High School has been required by the County Commissioners to be constructed and upfitted in a way that it could serve as an emergency shelter in a more modern way than what the norm has been for schools (e.g. emergency generators and so forth...).

As far as built-up facilities, and the related choices here, it always comes down to what gets left out. Besides athletic fields, facilities such as performance arts take up a great deal of space. And, the schools are an important source of facilities to support diverse programs for kids enrolled as it is - - - the high participation in sports is a good thing, and the performing arts are the same. There is also a great deal of community usage and benefit from these campus'.

Part of the problem is that we wait so long to make decisions around sighting of these facilities, that our options get so limited. Perhaps if the needed land had been acquired and set aside 10 years ago, some of this could be avoided.

I forgot to add that the 3rd High School (unlike any in the county) has no stadium configuration in the current mix (just the field) and there has been talk of the varsity sports being played at other venues (e.g. Culbreth, Chaple Hill High...). And on another front, the parking available for students is much lower than the standard at other High Schools in the District, with the view that students should use public transportation. Some have pointed out that this requirement may backfire, as inadequate parking could result in significant spillover of cars into the surrounding neighborhoods when public events are held at the school (performances, parent forth). It may also hinder parents and kids from staying after school for extracurricular events.

By the way, we have been lobbying Chapel Hill transit to increase bus service to East Chapel Hill High to facilitate use of public transport, but it has been deemed too costly.

What should the new high school be named? The
school system and real estate community will want the
name "Chapel Hill" in its title, however the school is not in
Chapel Hill. The school board might finesse this issue
by naming the school after someone who has contributed
greatly to the school system, but then they should do so
for the two existing high schools. Should be fun to watch
this debate. Wanna bet it won't be called Carrboro High?

I just pulled out the site plans Joe. The current name is the one Bobby used--High School No. 3. Not something I had tuned in to before, assuming it had already been named Carrboro High.

I'm pretty sure the aldermen have already dropped some pretty strong hints that they want it named Carrboro High. They're the ones approving the CUP, so it's not like they're lacking for leverage.


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