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Planning for the future: 2024-2034 Proposed Capital Investment Plan

By Stuart Phillips, CHCCS Communications Specialist

At the March 2 Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education meeting, Deputy Superintendent for Operations Al Ciarochi presented a clear and detailed overview of the Fiscal Year 2024-2034 Proposed Capital Investment Plan. In opening, Ciarochi identified the two Strategic Plan 2027 Key Priorities that guide the work of the Operations Division: Creating a Culture of Safety and Wellness, and, Equitable and Transparent Fiscal Stewardship and Operations. The primary focus areas of the Capital Investment Plan (CIP) are the Departments of Technology and Facilities, based on assessments and analyses conducted over the past year.

Ciarochi introduced the CIP Guiding Principles, which “drive the decision making process for ongoing capital needs and expenditures”. They are:

• 2022 Facility Study 
• 2022 Safety Assessment 
• Work Order History 
• Equipment Life Cycles 
• District Priorities for Facility Management along with Safety and Security 
• Technology Refresh Plan 
• Racial Equity Decision Making 

These Guiding Principles were developed through departmental collaboration, as well as with external consultants during building walk-throughs and early rounds of safety assessments. The initial stages of the CIP address the most urgent needs of the next three years. “With so many competing needs,” Ciarochi said, “we’ll look at what’s best for the children.”

In evaluating needs to prioritize, the safety and security of all district facilities will always be paramount. Other priorities are maintaining all critical infrastructure projects (i.e. roofing, asphalt, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing,) incorporating sustainability initiatives and conservation programs and deferred maintenance projects to extend the life of all facilities. Facility reviews and remediation projects (i.e. indoor air quality, abatement projects, etc.) will be conducted annually. In regard to the technology equipment life cycle and infrastructure, Ciarochi cautioned that new technology is currently on a replacement cycle of 5-7 years, instead of the previous 5-10 years that determined upgrades and purchases previously. 

One stark fact of the state of CHCCS facilities is that 45% of district schools and buildings are more than 50 years old.

The initial improvements to be addressed are fire alarm replacements, new playground equipment, improved and updated technology infrastructure and security upgrades throughout the district. One new area for funding will be asphalt replacement, in addition to the prioritized elements of building interiors. A recent initiative to replace antiquated lighting at four schools will yield more effective learning environments with new LED lighting.

In considering the extensive needs to replace aging furniture in classrooms, cafeterias and other spaces, Ciarochi said, “We learned during the pandemic that in order to achieve instruction with multiple modalities, you have to have the flexibility to move around, and much of our (current) furniture doesn’t allow that.”

As he acknowledged the breadth and range of projects to fund, Ciarochi said, “When we use a racial equity lens, that’s one of those areas we’re benchmarking, asking What are the best practices to determine where these resources go– 1st, 2nd and 3rd?”

During the presentation, Vice-Chair, George Griffin, noted the importance for CHCCS stakeholders to understand that it’s a legal responsibility of Orange County to fund capital needs. The state of North Carolina does not fund them. He also pointed out the crucial difference between capital expenditures and the operational budget.

Ciarochi agreed. “North Carolina statute puts responsibilities for capital improvements on the localities themselves– operating dollars are discouraged from being used for capital needs.”

In the months-long facility assessment in 2022, a primary angle of comparison was the physical condition of facilities vs. the instructional programming space capacity. Old schools generally have smaller classrooms, for instance.

Architectural consultants looked at that comparative equation to provide a more objective evaluation of where CHCCS schools rank when it comes to building replacement vs. significant remodeling or repair. They chose 10 buildings (including Lincoln Center and Phoenix Academy High School) and compared them to two of CHCCS’ newer facilities, McDougle Elementary and East Chapel Hill High School.

The primary metric for evaluation is the Facility Condition Index (FCI) which provides a methodology to examine options for replacement vs. renovation, and creates a ranking for urgency of need. Ciarochi emphasized that the schools with the highest FCI/need might not be the oldest, especially when there have been previous renovations that provide larger, more improved classroom spaces in some of those old schools.

“FCI is not a one-solution tool,” Ciarochi said. “You’ve got to look at the (FCI) number and understand how it’s been achieved. In reviewing which schools are under consideration for renovation or replacement, we have to consider more than just one factor.”

“We’ll really be diving into this next year as we look at the next bond issuance,” Ciarochi said, “because this is where we’ll have to come back and have a lot of discussion, knowing it could be up to 70 million dollars for school replacements.” 

The Joint Capital Needs Work Group, which brings together representatives from both CHCCS and Orange County Schools, has already been in discussion about the two districts’ funding for the past year and a half. Outside consultants are advising the Work Group on how to balance decisions for new projects vs. ongoing maintenance.

Ciarochi, along with Chief Operations Officer Dr. Andre’ Stewart and the CHCCS Safety team, have visited every school during the past year, and they have met with principals to better understand how their buildings are used, and where those administrators perceive the highest need. “We may focus on one need, but school leaders point out greater needs,” Ciarochi said. “Principals have provided tremendous input to us, so we can make informed decisions as we direct these dollars. I attribute that to our facilities department making that paradigm shift from years past.”

So what are the next steps in the 2024-2034 CIP process? The Orange County Manager will officially present the CIP to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) in early April. A series of public hearings on the annual operating budget plus the CIP will take place through May, and on June 20, the BOCC will vote on both.

CHCCS District Headlines stories are written on a regular basis by the CHCCS Division of Communications, with assistance from a network of school-based “storytellers” who share tips and ideas throughout the school year. The goal is to share real-world examples of the CHCCS Strategic Plan in action. Know about a story worth telling from your school? Contact the CHCCS Communications team at