Town Council member Maria Palmer raised multiple concerns Wednesday about plans to build a districtwide preschool and expanded Phoenix Academy on the city school district’s Lincoln Center campus.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials want to demolish the historic Lincoln Center at 750 S. Merritt Mill Road and build new district offices and schools on 12.6 acres.
The $22.62 million project would include 350 parking spaces and installation of a traffic signal at the N.C. 54 off-ramp and Merritt Mill Road intersection.
One two-story building could serve up to 300 preschool students, plus district staff, while another two-story building could house up to 150 Phoenix Academy high school students. A community health clinic also could be built to serve residents and provide students with career training.
Community rooms, the gym and a reduced field along Merritt Mill Road could be available to the public after hours. The project, which will require a rezoning, is set to be paid for with county bond money that voters approved in November.
School board Chairman James Barrett said the campus will double Phoenix Academy’s enrollment and add new career education courses, while also creating a quality, focused preschool program and opening up elementary school seats. The district office will include new boardroom and an African-American museum.
Palmer praised the new high school education options but said she still has serious concerns about increasing disparities for at-risk and low-income students. Families who can afford to pay for preschool will remove their children, rather than sending them across town, she said.
“Is it advisable to group young children in one location? This is, to me, in fact, resegregation,” she said.
The plan also creates problems for families without cars who live farther away, Palmer said. They will have to find a way to get their preschoolers to school, she said, and will lose the sense of being invested in their school community.
“When you have 300 families coming from all kinds of different places, who have siblings in other schools and whose children are going to transition out of the program very quickly, I don’t think you can call that a community,” she said. “And then you’re going to have a high school there. I don’t think those uses are very compatible” because Phoenix serves students who have dropped out or are at risk for other reasons.
Barrett disagreed that only minority and low-income students will attend the Lincoln Center school, noting that parents already take their children across town to attend Frank Porter Graham, which has high numbers of both groups. He also took issue with characterizing Phoenix Academy students as “problem students.”
Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for support services, addressed Palmer’s other concerns, saying Lincoln Center is centrally located, on the bus line and near N.C. 54. He also noted that the few preschool students who are enrolled in the elementary schools they eventually will attend are paying tuition.
“I think that speaks to the injustice that’s currently occurring,” Palmer said. “That the people who don’t have a say, don’t get assigned to their home school, and that’s an issue you guys have to solve.”
But council members Donna Bell and Sally Greene said Palmer raised good questions.
“I think one of the ways to actually think about some of the things that Maria is saying is to acknowledge that there are trade-offs, that this is not a clean, everybody is getting a gold star, process,” Bell said. The council will need more answers, Greene added.
Council members also raised concerns about the large number of parking spaces and the traffic that could generate when students are being dropped off and picked up. Project officials said the schools will be on staggered schedules, with at most, roughly 150 parents showing up at one time.
Council member George Cianciolo suggested the applicants think about how to use the parking lots for other purposes when they are vacant or a parking deck for staff and visitor parking. Council member Michael Parker suggested adding a traffic officer if Carrboro police agree the number of cars could be a problem.
The council continued the public hearing to Feb. 27.
Historic Airport Road: The council approved removing the Airport Road designation from Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard street signs. The dual name signs were installed in 2005 after the town changed the road’s name. This year’s budget included $8,000 to make the switch.
Bond money: The council approved spending nearly $1.5 million in two-thirds bonds on a new Fire Department ladder truck and emergency radio equipment.
The council also approved spending $9 million in voter-approved bonds for streets and sidewalks, trails and greenways, and parks and recreation. The $40.3 million bond was approved in November 2015. It will be spent as follows:
▪ Streets and sidewalks: $3 million for sidewalks and streetscapes, bike and pedestrian improvements, and street infrastructure
▪ Trails and greenways: $5 million for work on the Bolin Creek, Morgan Creek and Tanyard Branch trails
▪ Parks and recreation: $1 million for Homestead Soccer Fields, Southern Community Park, Cedar Falls tennis courts and inclusive playground, Umstead Park design