In recent years, Chatham County Schools has grown steadily, increasing the number of students it serves each school year from 2009-10 to this year. In that period, the district’s student population has gone from 7,679 to 8,840, a 15.2 percent increase, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction.
However, the current period of growth is minor compared to what’s on the horizon with the building of Chatham Park.
The largest mixed-use development in the state, Chatham Park is expected to add 60,000-plus new residents by full buildout in 40 years to Pittsboro, which had an estimated population of 4,221 in 2017.
This sort of transformative growth will certainly impact CCS, which currently has 18 schools.
“This is a good problem to have,” CCS Chief Operations Officer Chris D. Blice said at a recent Board of Education meeting. “To be in a district that is growing, to be in a district that is building new schools … that is a great problem to have.”
Reader Doreen Messick asked, “How is the expected growth going to impact our schools?”
Here’s a look at how CCS is preparing for what’s ahead.
Two new schools opening within the next two years
The number of district schools will reach 20 in a few years, with the additions of Chatham Grove Elementary and Seaforth High School.
Chatham Grove, which is being built on a 26-acre parcel of land at the corner Parker Herndon Road and Andrews Store Road, is on track to open by the 2020-21 school year.
Chatham Grove will have a capacity of 750 students, according to a district document. At a Chatham County Board of Education meeting on Jan. 14, Randy Drumheller, the district’s director of maintenance and construction, said Chatham Grove is 28 percent complete and still scheduled to open in the fall of 2020.
At the Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Derrick Jordan said the district’s goal is to name a principal at Chatham Grove “preferably just prior to the start of the new academic year or shortly thereafter.”
However, CCS is still working on determining the attendance zone for Chatham Grove, which was a topic of discussion at the meeting.
The district has enlisted the help of N.C. State University’s Operations Research and Education Laboratory (OREd) in determining an attendance zone for Chatham Grove, which could impact attendance zones for three other elementary schools: Perry Harrison, Pittsboro and North Chatham.
The addition of Chatham Grove is needed because of population growth in northeast Chatham County, which is separate from Chatham Park and has been powered by the Briar Chapel residential development.
In a comment on its Facebook page, CCS wrote, “Our goal is to have the Chatham Grove Elementary School attendance zone announced by July 1.”
Even when the expected growth of Chatham Park isn’t factored in, multiple CCS schools are expected to exceed capacity of 105 percent, according to information presented to the Board of Education at a January meeting by OREd.
According to projections that don’t factor in Chatham Park, Perry Harrison is expected to cross the 105 percent threshold by the 2020-21 school year, Pollard Middle by 2021-22 and Northwood High School by 2022-23.
With Chatham Park considered, Northwood is projected to be over 105 percent capacity one school year earlier, 2021-22, which explains the need for Seaforth.
When it opens in the fall of 2021, Seaforth will be Pittsboro’s second traditional high school. The school will be located off of Seaforth Road, near U.S. Highway 64. According to a district document, Seaforth will initially have a student capacity of 1,200 and could one day hold 1,400 students in the future because of a potential academic wing addition.
On its Facebook page, CCS wrote that the attendance zone for Seaforth will be determined after the process is completed with Chatham Grove.
Planning for Chatham Park
In February, CCS signed a memorandum of understanding with Chatham Park Investors LLC pertaining to future schools within the development.
According to Chatham Park, 22,000 Chatham Park dwelling units will generate 6,051 students. As a result, eight additional schools will be needed (5.6 elementary schools, 1.4 middle schools and one high school), according to John McCann, CCS’ public relations coordinator.
McCann did note, however, that a number of those students could possibly attend charter or private schools. According to Chatham Park’s website, Thales Academy, a private school with six locations in North Carolina, will be the first school to open on the development in 2020, and will serve students from kindergarten through ninth grade.
In a video on its website, Chatham Park promised to donate land for schools. In the memorandum, the development states that “not less than one half” of the school will be reserved for CCS and that “Chatham Park will consult with CCS to determine a sufficient number and type of school sites.”
There is no known timeline for when that process will begin.
In the meantime, the Board of Education voted unanimously in February to temporarily assign elementary-aged students from Chatham Park to Perry Harrison before future elementary schools are built. According to a district document, Perry Harrison will have an adequate number of seats available because of the opening of Chatham Grove.
Impact fees play a big role
The building of schools in Chatham County is largely supported by the county’s capital improvement plan.
According to Chatham County’s 2020-26 plan, the county is paying over $33 million to build Chatham Grove and nearly $75 million for the construction of Seaforth.
However, the state General Assembly passed a bill last summer to begin studying the effects of impact fees, which developers pay when new residential properties are developed. The revenue from impact fees funds capital improvements, such as the building or renovation of schools.
With the need for numerous new schools expected to come down the line, how the state approaches impact fees is of great interest to Chatham County.
Chatham County’s 2020-26 capital improvement plan states “approximately three additional cents on the property tax rate would be required to make up for this loss for approved projects in the debt model,” if the General Assembly did away with impact fees.
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