Category: Reporting

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Carrboro Alderman consider property tax increase for next year

Carrboro has been on steady financial ground for a while.

The town recovered and revitalized itself after the tremors of 2008 and for the fourteenth time in a row the town received a Distinguished Budget Presentation Award. Property taxes haven’t been raised in over seven years.

But this year something changed. The financially sound foundation is starting to shake.

The town is under seismic treat, Town Manager David Andrews said, because property taxes have failed to keep pace with inflation.

Andrews expressed concern about the taxes in the January 24 board meeting. Alderman Bethany Chaney said she is beginning to worry about the possibility of raising the property taxes to avoid a crisis.

“I think anytime we hear a statement like that there is reason to be concerned,” Chaney said.  “Nobody likes having to figure out a funding gap when potentially one of the options on the table, or the best option on the table is raising the tax rate.”

Scott Mooneyham, the director of public affairs for the North Carolina League of Municipalities said in an email that the if the property tax doesn’t rise with the rate of inflation the town can be put in an uncomfortable position.

“The property tax is really the only tax that local governments—municipalities and counties—have real control of,” Mooneyham said in an email.  “If inflation is rising faster than the growth in property tax collection—and those collections do make up the bulk of revenue for the vast majority of municipalities—then over time the governing boards of those municipalities really have only two choices: cut services or raise the property tax rate.”

Carrboro’s current property tax rate is about 59 cents for every $100 in property value. The property value for the town that lies within the Orange County limits is also facing a property reevaluation which could affect the town’s taxable income for the next fiscal year. The town was last evaluated in 2009. The final budget, which will be released in May, will reflect the potential tax changes. Andrews said the property taxes for the town have not been increased for over seven years.

Carrboro’s current property tax rate is about 59 cents for every $100 in property value. The property value for the town that lies within the Orange County limits is also facing a property reevaluation which could affect the town’s taxable income for the next fiscal year. The town was last evaluated in 2009. The final budget, which will be released in May, will reflect the potential tax changes. Andrews said the property taxes for the town have not been increased for over seven years.

“The property tax rate has been flat and we’ve seen sort of marginal increases from some developments coming online which has helped it to grow but certainly not at a high pace,” Andrews said.

The board has not yet been asked to formally consider a tax increase, but Chaney believes it will be part of the discussion going into the budget negotiations.

“The staff has not asked us to consider it yet, but I can say with confidence that we can no longer avoid (raising property taxes) as a real possibility over the next three years,” Chaney said.

Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell also expressed concerns about the Carrboro’s inability to meet the goal laid out in their planning document, Vision 2020, that called for a doubling of the commercial tax base.

“The residential tax base remains the critical scaffolding for our financial solvency,” Haven-O’Donnell said in an email. “It is obvious tax rate sustainability is in jeopardy and is struggling to keep pace with inflation rates.”

The balance of the percentage of taxes the town was collecting from sales taxes could also potentially be too high, Andrews said. He said they could leave the town financially vulnerable if the town were to face an economic downturn. Andrews was, however, optimistic that the taxes were coming from a diverse mix of sources.

“I’m not sure what the exact right mix (of property and sales tax) will be,” Andrews said. “Even though property tax revenues have really increased modestly, the bright side is our sales tax and other types of revenues have grown at a stronger pace which has allowed us to continue to balance our budget.”

Mooneyham said the Carrboro property and sales taxes were not unusual for a town of its size but expressed concern about its lack of diversification.

“Most economists who study tax and finance issues would say governments should have more varied revenue sources than municipalities enjoy because relying on too few revenue sources can lead to wide swings in revenue based on the economy and unequal tax burdens for residents,” Mooneyham said.

The Board also expressed concerns at the meeting about the lack of affordable housing in Carrboro. Affordable housing is partially funded by the town, which contributes one percent of its overall budget toward the cause. Despite the contribution, residents gave the town its only failing grade in the town’s first-ever Biennial Citizen Survey for the lack of affordable housing. Chaney said the funding is already under scrutiny for possibly contributing to tax increases in the future.

“I think some members of the board are concerned about is that that one percent could be the triggering factor for higher taxes down the road,” Chaney said. “I disagree that that’s the case. I think we are committed in general as a board to continue to fund affordable housing efforts.”

Chaney also criticized the North Carolina General Assembly for immobilizing certain revenue streams for the town like the income the town collects from occupants in hotels.

“There are very few actions we can take as a board that are independent of the state,” Chaney said. “When the state’s legislature is as conservative and as bitter as it is we find that we are very constrained in the way that we can creatively raise resources and pour those resources.”

Despite the constraints, both Chaney and Haven-O’Donnell still stand opposed to tax increases. But Chaney said unless the town invests in large-scale commercial development, it will continue to be constrained.

“The town of Carrboro has always been committed to keeping our property tax rate as low as we can and we are constrained by our size of the town—we are 6.5 square miles,” Chaney said.  “So unless we build up and unless we are willing to commit to large development projects, we are not going to grow that tax base.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Carrboro town hall lies in wait for needed renovation

In the past 60 years, buildings have come and gone in Carrboro. New technology has been developed. The population has increased by a factor of 11.

But in that time, the town hall has stood waiting for the same change and development that occurred all around it.

Now, when the building is finally scheduled to be renovated, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen is having second thoughts.

At the February 21 Board of Alderman meeting, town leaders failed to approve a new capital improvements plan, which would fund the $6.2 million needed for renovations to the town hall.

Town leaders expressed concerns about the overall cost of the plan, which they say is significantly higher due to the addition of town infrastructure for the first time this fiscal year.

“It’s is not a surprise because we’ve asked for those things,” Alderman Bethany Chaney said. “But it does give you pause when you realize how much things cost and it’s hard to make choices when we have so many priorities and demands.”

The town hall, which sits at 301 W. Main Street, has been rendered partially unusable due to a failure to meet certain property codes. Chaney said the closure of part of the building means the town staff no longer have adequate space. Chaney also said the current boardroom is too small to accommodate all the people who attend some of the town’s larger public hearings.

The town hall renovations were proposed in this year’s capital improvement plan.  The plan lays out what the town needs to spend from the current fiscal year until fiscal year 2021-2022.

The plan also recommends funding an additional $14.3 million in office space above the planned southern branch of Orange County library at 203 S. Greensboro Street. Town manager David Andrews said town leaders are still deliberating about how much additional space they will need.

“(The library) can be built up to as high as five stories per the zoning so we are looking at building some office spaces on top of the library, and going up another two, or three or four floors depending on what our needs are and what we can afford,” Andrews said.

This year’s plan calls for roughly $51 million total in capital spending, $9.7 million of which have already been appropriated. Last year’s plan only requested $49.3 million.

Alderman Jacquelyn Gist said she was alarmed by the cost increase.

“With some of these numbers—well I haven’t been that scared since Trump’s last speech,” Gist said in the meeting.

Gist also expressed concern with the possibility of the town having to raise taxes on residents to fund the capital improvement plan.

Chaney believes that it is likely town residents will see tax increases in the coming years, regardless of whether the town funds the improvement projects.

“The inflationary cost is increasing at a rate that the growth of our current tax base so whether or not we move forward on the projects I’m afraid that we are going to see tax increases in the next two to three years,” Chaney said.

The projects also faced funding challenges, Chaney said, because public buildings don’t generate property taxes, so they can’t be paid for sustainably without other revenue streams.

“When you are trying to build a building you want to have somebody paying for it, through the property taxes or otherwise,” Chaney said.

In previous meetings, Alderman Randee-Haven O’Donnell also expressed concerns about a drop in funding from the state and federal governments, which could affect the town’s ability to fund projects in the capital improvement plan.

“We do not know what tomorrow will bring and where our economy is going,” Alderman Randee-Haven O’Donnell said. “When you overlay that uncertainty on top of basic questions about county funding not to mention North Carolina and the legislature you really have to be careful.”

While the aldermen debate the costs, the town hall still stands on W. Main Street waiting to be fixed.

“All those projects are vital projects. Whether they could be delayed a year, or two or, three—every time we delay a project the costs increase and that’s just increasing the bottom line.” Chaney said.

“It’s just not adequate. Frankly, it’s a little shameful.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Carrboro leaders stand up for women’s rights

By Ari Sen 

After teaching for 39 years, Randee Haven-O’Donnell knows there are some things that can make geology, ecology or water chemistry wait for a day.

So when Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools sat empty Wednesday because of the “Day Without Women” protest, she held off on the science, instead deciding to discuss sexism with her seventh and eighth grade Durham Academy students.

“For me, my goal is to be front and center with my students and to say to them, as I did (Wednesday), ‘I am here to be with you and talk about this,’” Haven O’Donnell said.

Haven-O’Donnell, who also serves on Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen, believes that even though students may have missed a day of school, the value of the message was more important than what students would have learned that day.

“I think having this out for the day in the very short run it’s a way to make a statement about women that’s important for children to realize,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “I would submit to you that the most important aspect of learning goes far beyond was it going to be measured by any given test or assessment on any given day.”

At the March 7 Board of Aldermen meeting, Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle was greeted with a spontaneous round of applause after she read a proclamation declaring Wednesday to be “Carrboro Women’s Day.” Lavelle said she declared the holiday in solidarity with International Women’s Day, which was held on the same day.

“I think this is (a holiday) I’m going to continue,” Lavelle said.  “There is a great emphasis on it, I think particularly this year with the spirit of the Women’s March. I just felt like it was really important to kind of state that Carrboro stands behind the principles that founded that day.”

A movement based off of the “Day Without Immigrants” protest encouraged women to take the day off from work, wear red and refrain from spending money to support the cause of women on the holiday. Because of a high number of predicted staff absences, Chapel Hill-Carrboro city schools declared an optional teacher workday.

Only three school districts in the country were forced to close because of the protests. The closure garnered national attention and was reported by various news outlets including the New York Times. A statement released by school superintendent Jim Causby said the closure was not because of any personal politics, but rather because of a perceived inability to operate the schools properly with the number of staff members absent.

“While Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools values and supports its female employees, the decision to close schools is not a political statement,”  Causby said. “It is entirely about the safety of students and the district’s inability to operate with a high number of staff absences.”

Haven-O’Donnell said even if the school says they didn’t claim to close for political reasons, it is possible that still support the cause.

“The school district does that because they don’t want to be like a weather-vane—depending on what the political mood is you know flip-flopping one way or the other,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “But I think that the school district does not want to be in crisis either.”

Haven O’Donnell believes that Carrboro is the ideal community to support women’s rights because of their recent history of supporting social justice issues. In January, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools proposed raising their living wage rate from $12.75 to $13.16 per hour—well above the $7.25 state minimum wage.

“This is something that Carrboro does,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “You can see it in life with how we support social justice issues, but even more important than that, (you see it) undergirding the platform that supports women—whether it be wages, salaries, equalization, equity, healthcare.”

Lavelle also said she was open to allowing town employees to take the day of in solidarity with the movement.

“I believe our town employees that want to are able to participate and can take time off to do so,” Lavelle said. “I want people to be able to make a point or have their voices heard.”

Though she believes they understand the issues, Haven-O’Donnell said that she was pessimistic about young people’s support for feminism until the past year’s protests of President Donald Trump.

“When I was in Washington there were million people standing around with me energized to resist,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “This is that extension. It’s not going away. It’s overdue. And I think especially middle schoolers, high schoolers respect people who are trying to fight and people who are strengthening their voice—that’s the way kids are.”

Lavelle said that a new energy has been breathed into the community to stand up for women’s rights and other social issues.

“I’ve seen it everywhere I go. People want to get engaged,” Lavelle said.  “They look to local government for it first to start to try to hear what’s going on to try to shape policy statewide and nationally. There’s absolutely a lot of energy. Speaking especially for our area, our towns—we are always energized, but even more so this year.”

Haven O’Donnell said no matter the age or gender, protest is always appropriate when faced with injustice.

“I think peaceful dissent is always appropriate,” Haven-O’Donnell said.

“Passive resistance is not easy. But it’s effective. And sometimes that’s all we’ve got.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Town of Carrboro preempts legal challenge to N.C. body…

By Ari Sen 

Carrboro’s town attorney thinks body camera video should be seen by community leaders.

And he thinks he just might have a way around a new state law that would prohibit such disclosures.

“The statutes say the council of a city runs, or are the corporate officers of the city and that includes the police department. The statutes say that the manager is essentially the chief executive officer and administrator of all personnel in the city,” Town Attorney Nick Herman said in an interview.  “So if you’ve got the police department doing something on tape arguably under the statutes that would empower the manager to be the administrator of the city and he outta be able to see that tape.”

After two years of deliberation and refinement, the Carrboro Board of Alderman passed a measure 4-1 at the Feb. 28 board meeting which would authorize body camera use by the town police department. Body camera video disclosure is governed by N.C. General Statute 132, which went into effect on Oct. 1, 2016.

Under the new law, police body and dash camera recordings are no longer part of the public record and only legal representatives of those in the recordings could request to see the footage from a police department. The police department, however, would not be legally required to allow them to view the footage.  If the footage wasn’t handed over to the representative, they could then request the footage from a superior court judge. For any other person who wants access to the footage, they must request access to it in court from a superior court judge.

The Carrboro resolution was developed in a collaboration between the aldermen, the town police department and attorneys for the town, police department and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Upon request from the ACLU, the town implemented measures in the new policy that places the presumption on disclosing all footage unless the police chief has a legitimate reason not to do so.

The aldermen also authorized four new motions to the policy before it passed on Tuesday night including resolutions striking language that reiterated the general statutes excluding the recordings from the public record and adding language allowing the town to read the new policy in ways that could potentially allow their access to any police tapes.

“My position on that is that we are bound by the statute… we cannot bring a facial challenge to it,” Herman said in the meeting. “There is nothing unlawful about the statute itself, its enactment or what it says. What the fight would be potentially is an interpretation of the reach of the statute—what it means. Some of us believe that the statute must be read in light of other statutes that the manager is empowered to do certain things and empower (the alderman) to do certain things. Viewed that way is disclosure or release may be more expansive than just what’s literally stated in this.”

UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government professor Jeff Welty said in a September interview that despite other states passing laws governing body camera footage, North Carolina’s law is unique.

“(Other) states are all over the map,” Welty said. “But one aspect of our law that that’s unique is that I don’t think there is any other state in which there is no way to get access to a recording like this except through a court order.”

Alderman Sammy Slade voted against the policy Tuesday night because he said the state law limits one of the original intentions of body cameras.

“I feel that one of the values that video footage has… is for the public to serve to hold accountable not just the police force but (also) the justice system itself,” Slade said in the meeting.

“A superior court judge is accountable to a larger group of people who vote for him than a Board of Aldermen or an elected body is. Other people participating that have other issues or concerns may not feel the accountability that may happen is as direct”

Alderman Bethany Chaney said that despite objections to the state law she supports the new policy.

“I’m very much in support of this policy,” Chaney said. “I think the two years it’s taken to get here has been appropriate.”

Gov. Pat McCrory said when he signed the law on July 11 that statute is designed to increase transparency.

“This legislation fulfills our commitment to protect our law enforcement and gain public trust by promoting uniformity, clarity and transparency,” McCrory said.

Gov. Roy Cooper opposed the law in his campaign against McCrory, criticizing it as misleading and not transparent.

“Cooper has consistently said he supports the use of body cameras in law enforcement but the law signed by Governor McCrory doesn’t do enough to ensure transparency,” Cooper campaign spokesman Ford Porter said in a statement. “Transparency is vital to building trust and respect between law enforcement and the communities they protect. It’s a shame that (the) Governor insists on attempting to mislead voters instead of taking responsibility for the law he signed.”

Herman said that releasing the tapes to the public could potentially expose the town to legal action.

“My view is the manager needs to know about (an incident) immediately and then the manager outta be able to to come in here and closed session and show you the tape and say ‘We gotta do something about this’ because what your lawyers gonna say is ‘We are gonna get the hell sued out of us,’” Herman said after the meeting.  “Now releasing to the public is sticky wicket. There would be at least legitimate arguments about some safeguard about putting this out in the public domain only because take an ambiguous tape—everybody sees what they want to see.”

Local ACLU attorney Susanna Birdsong, who collaborated on the Carrboro policy, also criticized the law in September after violent protests erupted in Charlotte, N.C. over the shooting death of Keith Lamond Scott.

“Under this shameful new law, North Carolinians will have to spend time and money seeking a court order if they want to obtain police footage they themselves are in – and even then, they could still be denied,” Birdsong said in a statement. “The law also prohibits law enforcement agencies from releasing footage in the public interest – as we have seen officials do recently in Greensboro, Charlotte and Tulsa, Oklahoma – without a court order, which is why it has been criticized by police chiefs in Burlington, Fayetteville, and Greenville, and people across the state.”

The Carrboro policy would allow officers to view recordings prior to writing their reports, except in cases of officer involved shootings. In the event of a shooting, the officer would be suspended for two to three days and then would be required to write a statement about the shooting before they could view the tape. The written statement could then be amended thereafter, but the original draft of the statement would be kept.

Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton said he supports the new policy, but it will not be the panacea to police-resident relations.

“My two cents—we’ve got a solid policy,” Horton said in the meeting. “I am looking forward to (body worn cameras) but they are not gonna be the end-all solution, the everything that’s gonna answer every question… but I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Carrboro hangs in precarious balance after HB2 repeal, NCAA…

By Ari Sen 

For some members of the Board of Aldermen their worst nightmare is a Carrboro without the revenue from Carolina athletics.

So when the National Collegiate Athletic Association threatened to withdraw all of its championship games from the state until 2022 unless legislators repealed House Bill 2, the town leaders took notice.

“I worry that in Orange County, where we do not have the industry or the retail that Durham has. We are really vulnerable,” Alderman Randee Haven O’Donnell said in an interview yesterday. “The economic picture for is rosy if everything were status quo. But I don’t think it is”

A repeal of House Bill 2, House Bill 142, passed in the North Carolina Senate and North Carolina General Assembly Thursday morning and N.C.  Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bill, this afternoon.  In addition to repealing HB2, the new law would also place a moratorium on municipalities passing non-discrimination ordinances until December of 2020.

“I know I’ve done the right thing,” Cooper said in a press conference today. “My choice was to do nothing or repeal House Bill 2 and take this important step forward.”

Activists from pro-LGBT rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Equality NC and the Human Rights Campaign have denounced the repeal bill.

“The governor and General Assembly may be turning their backs on LGBT North Carolinians today, but we are not,” Sarah Gillooly, policy director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement. “We will continue to fight in court for transgender people to access the restrooms that correspond to their gender identity and for equal protection for the entire LGBT community in North Carolina.”

The NCAA has yet to make a determination as to whether to move the championship games. It is still unclear whether the NCAA will consider the passage of House Bill 142 to be a true repeal of House Bill 2.

“Last year, the NCAA Board of Governors relocated NCAA championships scheduled in North Carolina because of the cumulative impact HB2 had on local communities’ ability to assure a safe, healthy, discrimination-free atmosphere for all those watching and participating in our events,”
Stacey Osburn, the NCAA Director of Public and Media Relations wrote in a statement last week. “Absent any change in the law, our position remains the same regarding hosting current or future events in the state. As the state knows, next week our various sports committees will begin making championships site selections for 2018-2022 based upon bids received from across the country.”

Haven O’Donnell said that if the NCAA were to remove its championship games from the state Carrboro would be negatively affected by the lack of tourism money.

“78 percent of the tourism dollars are generated by the Hampton Inn in Carrboro. That’s amazing to me,” Haven O’Donnell said.  “If what happens with the sport at the university I think is not only going to make a difference county-wide—I think it’s going to erode those numbers for folks getting accommodation at Carrboro’s hotels.”

Two of the Alderman, Damon Seils and Bethany Chaney took to Twitter to express their displeasure with the repeal bill and the NCAA’s ultimatum.

“Come on, (N.C. Governor Roy Cooper). We’re looking for high-value democratic leadership not this wet-fish, basketball-starved crap.” Alderman Bethany Chaney wrote in a tweet.

House Bill 2, or the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act passed the General Assembly and senate in a special legislative session in March 2016 and was signed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory. Several companies pulled out of North Carolina including PayPal and Adidas and seven states issued a non-mandatory travel ban on the state in reaction to the law. In addition to the NCAA, The National Basketball Association and Atlantic Coast Conference also boycotted the state by removing their respective championship games.  An Associated Press report claims that the failing to repeal HB2 would cost the state almost $3.8 billion in revenue over 12 years.

“I started thinking about that $3.8 billion and a lot of that is local money,” Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said in Tuesday’s Board of Aldermen meeting. “The extra effect of HB2 is that it’s really, really hurt us.

Seils said in an interview that he was unsure whether House Bill 142 would carry the economic repercussions for the town that House Bill 2 did, but he is worried that it has some of the same characteristics.

“I think there is a case to be made that today’s bill has some of the very same problems that House Bill 2 had in terms of not providing non-discrimination protections for LGBT North Carolinians and again making this false claim branding transgender people as sex criminals is what this bill does just like House Bill 2,” Seils said.

“It’s become increasingly clear that (a full House Bill 2 repeal) is not something that the Republican legislature and the North Carolina General Assembly would like to consider. So it looks like this is the best we are going to get for now.”


Not Quite So Black and White: Students, Administrators examine…

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Feb. 17, 1977 — It was the day of the big game. Two county rivals facing off on the hardwood that night. Tensions were high.

Red, white and blue-clad students filed into the gym for a pep rally. Junior William Anthony Shealy entered through the gym doors, crammed with students in the tiny space. A small scuffle ensued, but it was quickly resolved — that is, until the end of the pep rally.

Once the pep rally had ended, the fight began again. And then it got worse.

Ten students, both White and black, began brawling in the hallways. Soon it grew to as many as 60. In the fray, one student pulled out a knife and stabbed Shealy twice as Shealy attempted to break up the disturbance.

The school was plunged into chaos.

State highway patrolmen and local prison guards were dispatched to the school to stop the fighting and set up a roadblock in front of the school. Teachers fled to their classrooms and locked the doors. School officials worked to evacuate the school, afraid of further tension.

Black students began boarding buses at 11 a.m. Three students were taken to the hospital for treatment.

The next day, normally noisy halls were quiet. Students who filled the hallways remained at home. There were no lessons on history, math, science or literature. There was no county basketball match-up. There was only silence.

West may have come a long way since that morning in February almost 40 years ago, but some would argue that racism still exists in area schools.

Racial incidents like the one at West are not just events of the past. At nearby Brevard High School in November, an incident race-related bullying of a black student led to three men being charged with ethnic intimidation and concerns raised by parents at Transylvania Schools Board of Education meetings.

The situation at Brevard allegedly started out as an argument over a student’s girlfriend and escalated to the three men driving to the black student’s house and yelling racial threats. Police reported that the three men were wearing ski masks and carrying knives, a rope and a stick.

The FBI and the local chapter of the NAACP are now investigating the incident and determining whether the three men should be charged with racial intimidation, North Carolina’s designation for a hate crime.

The recent incident at Brevard raises questions. Could it happen in the Henderson County Public Schools? Is the occasionally uttered racist rhetoric evidence of a systemic problem or simply isolated incidents of bigotry?


“I would probably say every minority student at West has (experienced racism),” senior Tyreke Dunbar, a black student, said. “Earlier in high school, I encountered more racism than I do now. Freshman year there were a lot of seniors and juniors who thought they were hot stuff and (said some racist things).”

Listen to Tyreke Dunbar’s full interview here:

Students and administrators disagree over whether an incident similar to the one at Brevard could happen at West. Dunbar said he believes it is possible.

“I could guarantee that it’s possible to happen here,” Dunbar said. “Tensions can rise pretty fast in a situation, and there are enough white people here and enough black people here for something like that to happen.”


Principal Shannon Auten said she believes it is unlikely an incident like the one at Brevard could happen at West.

“I feel like this is a welcoming community. I’m so proud of West Henderson. We embrace the diversity we have,” Auten said. “Obviously, we’d never want something like that happening at West Henderson. I just want all of our students and teachers to be nice.”

Senior Caitlin Fuentes, a biracial Caucasian and Hispanic student, believes racism may not be readily apparent inside the hallways of the school, but off-campus it is more prevalent.

“Oh, racism definitely goes on here,” Fuentes said. “Perhaps it’s more outside of school, not in the school — not in the hallways but like on the buses.”

Listen to Caitlin Fuentes’s full interview here:

Senior Jade Dunbar, a black student, said she believes students and teachers at West are friendly overall and that any racism is minimal.

“I can’t say that I have (encountered any racism),” Jade Dunbar said. “There might have been instances where I thought it might have existed, but I was never certain.”


Listen to Jade Dunbar’s full interview here:


If racism exists locally, then one would expect there would be data to support that assertion. One metric that could show possible teacher discrimination is the number of short-term suspensions categorized by race.

According to a report from the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee of the North Carolina General Assembly, in Henderson County there were 885 total suspensions for the 2014-2015 school year. Of those, 116 involved African-American students or about 13.1 percent of all suspensions for that school year. According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, African-American students made up about 3.7 percent of the population of students in Henderson County that year.

West vs Henderson County 

Advanced Placement Statistics teacher Tyler Honeycutt said the difference between the number of suspensions and the population could be statistically significant if the data on suspensions and demographics are accurate and from the same time period.

“It is impossible to tell which HCPS school the discrepancy is coming from without further breaking the data down from school-to-school, which the (Joint Legislative Oversight Committee) report unfortunately doesn’t do for us,” Honeycutt said. “Another item that would be good to know is what the offenses that received suspensions were and whether those suspensions were doled out with fairness among racial groups. Again, unfortunately, the data do not indicate whether the punishments were the same for offense types among racial categories. This occurs mainly because students who were sent to the office, but who did not get suspension punishment (ISS, OSS, etc) are left out of the data. This gives us very little by which we can compare practices of disciplinary procedures for different racial groups. To me, that would be the true marker of whether discriminatory practices were in place. I think the questions posed here really illuminate the need for better data-gathering practices regarding school disciplinary procedures in general.”

Henderson County is not alone in facing these racially disproportionate suspensions. A 2014 study by the University of Pennsylvania graduate school of education found that disproportionate punishment was systemic throughout the southern United States. In North Carolina alone, the study found that “65,897 Black students were suspended from North Carolina K-12 public schools in a single academic year. Blacks were 26% of students in school districts across the state, but comprised 51% of suspensions and 38% of expulsions.”

The study also linked these types of punishments to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term used to describe the increasing patterns of contact students have with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems as a result of the practices implemented by educational institutions. In its conclusion, the report laid out possible ways to diagnose the problem of disproportionate punishment.

“In most teacher education and administrator preparation programs, too little emphasis is placed on racial disproportionality in discipline and ways educators help sustain the school-to-prison pipeline.” The report states, “More time and attention must be placed on educating aspiring teachers and school leaders about implicit bias and other racist forces that annually reproduce horrifying statistics such as those presented in this report.”

Discrepancies in treatment also occur with other minority populations. For multiracial students there were 69 suspensions for the 2014-2015 school year or roughly 7.8 percent of all suspensions for that year despite multiracial students making up only 3.6 percent of the total population. Multiracial students face some of the same pressures minority students do. Fuentes said being biracial puts her into an awkward position that has sometimes led to her feeling discriminated against.

“I was put into ESL (English as a second language classes) in elementary school, which is funny because I speak English perfectly. It’s my first language. I don’t really speak any Spanish at all,” Fuentes said. “They saw my skin color and said, ‘Oh you should be in ESL.’ It made my mom really mad. I was kind of too young to understand, but now when I look back I’m like, ‘Really, guys, just talk to me, and you can see I speak English just fine.”


Auten said any perception of discrimination is unintentional.

“I think in Henderson County Public Schools and at West our goal is to treat each student and each disciplinary situation in a fair and consistent manner,” Auten said. “Every situation is different. If we are making this a place where we embrace everyone for their differences, we also have to be fair and consistent with our discipline.”

Another important metric to consider is the diversity of the school’s student body. According to Startclass, a service that ranks high schools and colleges based on academic performance, in the 2013-2014 school year, 87.1 percent of West students were white with the next largest group being Hispanics, making up 6.9 percent of the student body.

Startclass also reported that there was a difference between the graduation rates of white and minority students for that school year. The Caucasian graduation rate at West that year was 95 percent while the Hispanic and multiracial graduation rate was only 80 percent — three percent less than the state average. However, there was not a significant discrepancy in math and language arts standardized test scores for that school year.



Despite the numbers, Auten has faith that West is a diverse place for students to come to school.

“Diversity to me is based on culture and ability, gender, race, ethnicity, identity and expression, political affiliation, religion, sexuality, sexual identity and all sorts of different things. I feel like West is a diverse place,” Auten said. “What I’m really proud of is the way our students really embrace and accept each other. I feel like this is a welcoming community. I’m so proud of West Henderson.”

Listen to Principal Shannon Auten’s full interview here 

Jade Dunbar said she would like to have attended a more diverse school, but she believes West is becoming more diverse.

“I feel like it would be better if it became more diverse, but we are becoming more diverse as the years go on,” she said. “We’ve come pretty far since my freshman year. Now that we’ve had all these new African-American students, new Asian students and new Hispanic students, it’s made everything a bit more equal.”


Tyreke Dunbar would have liked attending a more diverse school, but he also feels it isn’t an issue.

“I think it would be a lot cooler for just about every aspect of our school if there was more diversity,” Tyreke Dunbar said. “It’s not too bad, though.”

But both Jade and Tyreke Dunbar agree racism is still a problem in American society.

“It’s pretty ignorant to ignore the fact that there is racism around black people,” Tyreke Dunbar said. “People still try to act like it’s not a big deal. It still is. It’s just not in the same way that it used to be.”

By Ari Sen


Carolina Public Press

The Carolina Public Press is a in-depth investigative news service based in Asheville, N.C. For my senior graduation project I had the opportunity to work with the Public Press. My first assignment was to go to local polling places and take photos. The photos were published and can be found here. I also wrote a news story for CPP which is printed below. 


West Henderson High School senior Vivian Rodriguez assists Roy Presley in voting in the March 15, 2016, primary election at Mills River Elementary School in Mills River. Ari Sen / Carolina Public Press.


Carolina Public Press Managing editor Frank Taylor moderated a panel discussion on public land use in Western North Carolina on Earth Day, Friday, April 22, 2016.

The panel consisted of Allen Nicholas, a forest supervisor for the N.C. Forest Service, Gordon Warburton, an ecoregion supervisor for N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Roderick Simmons, the director of the Asheville Department of Parks and Recreation. The panelist discussed various issues around public land use in North Carolina including community communication, outreach and engagement, endangered and invasive species, debates over recreation land use versus conservation, lack of resources and local vs state control.

“Successful conservation is based on working with local folks,” Warburton said. “Getting local support is very, very important.”

One specific issue discussed was the tensions caused by proposed revisions to the forest management plan, a document that describes how North Carolina’s four National Forest’s will be managed for the following 10 to 15 years. Each park has it’s own plan except for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests which are combined into a single plan. The drafting process for the latest Nantahala and Pisgah forest plan will begin in this month and will be released in the fall.

Even though the forest plan has not even been drafted yet, there has already been controversy over some of the proposed revisions. Members of the Forest Service would like to expand wilderness areas in the latest revision of the forest plan, but this has proved to be controversial for local governments. Members of Macon County’s Board of Commissioners recently refused to support the proposed revisions to the forest and chose rather to affirm a 2014 resolution that would oppose any additions to wilderness areas. Nicholas said that this controversy is all part of the drafting process.

“People can get somewhat polarized… that is absolutely part of the process,” Nicholas said. “When the (Pisgah/Nantahala Forest management plan) draft comes out there are going to be no surprises.”

Panelists were also questioned on possible damage that is being done to mountain aquatic organisms particularly by invasive species.

“We’ve got a series of issues,” Warburton said. “In our reservoirs white perch, alewife hydrilla, bluebacks herring and spotted bass (are under threat). These are issues caused by people moving fish around… it’s sort of like the globalization of our species’.”

Nicholas also stressed the danger of these non-native species.

“Invasives I think are one of the biggest ecological game changers we are going to see in the next 30 to 40 years,” Nicholas said. “There is really no way we can treat the literally hundreds and hundreds of acres that these species dominate.”

Warburton also discussed the dangers of feral animals to the environment.

“We are running into (problems with feral animals) here to,” Warburton said. “It’s a tricky situation. They can have impacts that a normal natural predator would not have.

More local concerns regarding conservation were also discussed in the panel including the recent debate over whether to develop on Collier Woods, a patch of urban forest land on the south side of Asheville. Simmons said that Collier is a prime example of how the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department works with local communities.

“It’s very challenging in terms of how we manage (balancing public concerns). We try to sit down and think what is best for the overall community. We are an environmental community that takes the area’s very seriously in term of the natural environment and how we sustain it,” Simmons said. “Over the past 10 years it has been our intent to plan more on a regional basis. You’ll see that a lot going forward.”

Warburton and Nicholas believe that there is significant public misunderstanding on who owns public land and how it is managed which can lead to tension and debate.

“The truth is we really can’t strike a balance with this stuff,” Nicholas said. “People hold their needs and wants and desires so closely.”

“There are a lot of different public landowners and each of these places have different purposes and missions,” Warburton said. “State parks are more recreationally oriented.”

All the panelists agreed that there was more pressure on public lands to serve multiple purposes for citizens.

“Access is a big thing everywhere,” Nicholas said. “Think of the forest service as a Monroe shock absorber we are constantly contracting and expanding in order to give someone a better ride. There is a suite of things the forest service is tasked with managing.”

The panel was also opened up to a question and answer session from the audience. Persons in attendance asked various questions ranging from how the panelist reach out to underrepresented groups to the general purpose of the forest service.

All the panelist stressed the importance of community engagement in support of their respective organizations. Simmons says that engagement with disenfranchised communities in the Asheville area is of particular concern for the Asheville Parks Department.

“What we are trying to do now is move to more of an engagement process where citizens are determining together as a community what they would like to see as opposed to the staff simply coming back and saying ‘here’s your choices’” Simmons said. “We are starting new initiatives like open city halls and a WordClouds on our website.”

Nicholas has come to view this community engagement as one of North Carolina’s greatest assets.

“One of the opportunities I see in North Carolina is how much people love this place,” Nicholas said. “The truly unique character it has leads a lot of folks to want it to be protected and managed and maintained.”


Price to Play: Schools face challenge funding sports

Writing and Editing. June 2, 2015. Wingspan. 

This is a feature I wrote in high school about West Henderson sports teams. Before I started my reporting I thought that I would try to investigate the sports program. I assumed – wrongly – that the sports team was funded from the same money that the school was and that the sports team was taking money from the academics at the school. What I found out after I did my reporting was just as interesting. In fact, the athletics program is funded completely on its own, without any state or local funding from anyone and it was struggling to break even. 

A 3A state runner-up volleyball team. The North Carolina 100-yard backstroke champion. A football team with its most successful season in more than 30 years. A dozen or more athletes going on to compete in college.

These are just a few of the accomplishments of the sports program at West in the past year. People think of these accomplishments as a sign of success. But who pays the price for that success?

“The school system does not allocate any dollars for athletics,” John Bryant, the Henderson County Public Schools district athletic director said. “We contribute funds for the construction and general maintenance of the facilities and provide the dollars that pay and compensate the coaches.”

All other expenses of the sports program are funded by the school through gate receipts and fundraising.

According to the school’s athletic director, Assistant Principal Jeff Smith, the school spent a $108,000 on sports teams last semester with gate receipts of $115,000. The extra funds helped pay for spring sports teams. It is hard for the school to break even, Smith said.

“Athletics are very fickle. When you go through a down year, sometimes you need an influx of cash,” Smith said. “When it comes to refurbishing the track or doing major repair on our football field or practice field or basketball court, it would be nice to have some cash. Right now, we are forced to prioritize. Do we give our athletes new uniforms or paint or get new floors? I think our athletes deserve better. It would be nice to just have a base amount of money to start. About $10,000 to $15,000 would be great. It would help us keep better care of our facilities.”

Some sports teams cost more than others. Smith said football is the sport that costs the most, but it also brings in the most revenue and helps pay for other sports.

“The equipment costs for football are just unbelievable,” Smith said. “We have to recondition helmets every year. They have to be sent off to an inspector that makes sure they are legal. After a certain age they have to be thrown out. If there are any cracks or damages they have to be thrown out. It can cost up to $300 for one helmet, and we have 80 players. Shoulder pads are also expensive and can cost from $100 to $200 apiece. Football uniforms can also be really expensive. We bought football uniforms for the first time in eight or nine years, and they cost $9,000. But football also takes in the most money.”

The school is responsible for funding uniforms and equipment and for upgrading athletic facilities. These upgrades can have a high cost. “We are trying to buy a new scoreboard because the one we have is falling apart. We are trying to put a digital Jumbotron scoreboard down there, which could cost from $80,000 to $100,000,” Smith said. “We are also having some discussions with our central office about what it’s going to take to (Astro)turf our football field.”

Not only does the school pay to operate the sports program, it also has to pay the state and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. The NCHSAA is a private, nonprofit athletic association that governs high school athletics for the state of North Carolina. NCHSAA charges a $0.75 per pupil membership fee and takes 15 percent of all gate receipts for postseason games in exchange for providing locations and logistics for playoff and championship games.

The NCHSAA also has an allotment of additional funds which are partially returned to schools to protect against emergencies. Last year, NCHSAA returned $500,000 back to schools from its allotment funds.

“The NCHSAA doesn’t govern West or North or East other than the fact that our high schools choose to be members and they are participating in sanctioned athletic activities across the state. Each of our high schools pays a membership fee, and when they do, they are accepting the organization,” Bryant said. “I certainly think that our student athletes and our schools have found great value in being members. Like anything there are limitations, and there are things in which the organization can grow and be better. It would appear by the simple fact that all the schools in the county continue to be members that the value for our student athletes, the opportunity for them to compete against other schools in our state, that value exceeds the challenges schools face.”

Smith agrees that the NCHSAA is helpful, but disagrees with the way the organization structures the playoff games.

“The amount of money they (NCHSAA) take from our gate money really hurts,” Smith said. “For example, in the Kings Mountain playoff game (in November), Kings Mountain got a share of our gate, and we had to pay all of the expenses: security, ticket takers, even the rescue squad. That came out of our half, so Kings Mountain ended making more gate money from our playoff game than we did. The state also walked off with a good chunk of it, and they did nothing.”

Rick Strunk, the associate communications director for the NCHSAA, says it’s rare that an away school makes more money than the home school. He feels that these payments are more than fair because school officials come up with the fees, not his organization.

“The athletic organization is governed by a board of directors with equal representatives from each of the eight regions of North Carolina. The representatives consist of athletic directors, superintendents and other school officials,” Strunk said. “The board of directors determines the formula for the travel allotments for different sports.”

Strunk said that many state athletic organizations take 100 percent of all funds from postseason events, so the 15 percent they take is minimal.

Some of the costs for sports teams fall on students. Members of the volleyball team said that without fundraising the equipment and uniforms required for the sport can cost up to $500. Student-athletes are also responsible for the transportation fee which in Henderson County is $20. Smith said the cost is minimal compared to what other school systems charge, but that sports should be free.

“We are fortunate in Henderson County that our transportation fee is very minimal for our athletes. In Buncombe County that fee is up to about $100 per student per sport,” Smith said. “I don’t think students should have to pay to participate in sports.”

By Ari Sen

Photo illustration by Analyse Wilkins. 

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Developer’s complaint to cost schools, community millions

By Ari Sen

Ask any high school or college student and they’ll tell you that one late paper or homework assignment doesn’t carry to large a penalty. Ten points off or perhaps the difference between an A and a B.

But one local apartment owner’s late paperwork might have led to proposed legislation that could cost local schools and taxpayers millions of dollars.

The bills, House Bill 406 and House Bill 436, would eliminate impact fees for municipalities across the state. HB 406 specifically targets impact fees for Orange County whereas HB 436 would ban the fees in several municipalities including Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Pittsboro, Raleigh and Wake Forrest. HB 436 also applies to Catawba, Chatam and Orange counties.

“It’s probably a good sign in that there’s not a whole bunch of people signing onto these and saying, yes, we support this,” Orange County Rep. Graig Meyer said in a Board of Commissioners meeting.

Despite Meyer’s comments, both bills have cleared their first procedural hurdles by making it to the finance committee of the General Assembly. Seils said they were told it was unlikely the bills would be voted on this week, but they could move to the House floor as soon as next week.

Impact fees are fees paid by developers to the local town or county government that help to fund social programs such as infrastructure projects or schools. Orange County currently receives $2.8 million in revenue from these impact fees, which goes to support both Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools. Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools budget is roughly $144 million for the 2017-2018 school year whereas the smaller Orange County public schools requested roughly $44.5 million for the 2017 fiscal year. Alderman Damon Seils said the only ways the county could make up the lost funding is by cutting spending or raising property taxes by at least two cents.

“If we are looking at a shortfall caused by loss of revenues we are talking about needing to make up that revenue some other way, notably by increasing property taxes,” Seils said.

“Of course the community is not going to support cutting spending—that would be a pretty major hit on the school system.”

Seils said the bills were likely brought on by a single development in Orange County. Orange County Rep. Verla Insko told the News and Observer that the development in question is likely the Chapel Hill complex currently known as Townhouse.

Townhouse apartments are currently owned by A.P. Segar, and are located on Hillsborough Street, roughly a half a mile from downtown Chapel Hill. In 2014 Segar submitted a proposal to update the apartment complex, adding additional recreation facilities and 204 new beds putting the total for the facility up to 850. The complex would also be renamed, changing from Townhouse to Grove Park.

The impact fees increased for some developers recently when the town underwent its re-evaluation process which became active on January 1. After the re-evaluation, Grove Park’s impact fees would rise from roughly $300,000 to more than $1 million.

The Orange County commissioners passed a grandfather clause that would cover Grove Park and other developments from the new impact fees, but only if they were to submit the paperwork on time, which Seils believes Grove Park didn’t.

After the late filing, Segar hired four lobbyists including former lawmaker and attorney Bill Faison. Documents show that Faison lobbied the bills’ primary sponsor, House Speaker Pro-Tempore Sarah Stevens.

“I think you have to look at who benefits from (the bills),” Seils said. “In this case who introduced the bill, who was lobbying for the bill, who benefits if the bill passes.”

Campaign finance reports show that Stevens accepted campaign contributions from real estate and construction companies that opposed impact fees in the past. Stevens also operates S&E Properties, a Mt. Airy real estate leasing and rental company, with her husband.

Both Chapel Hill and Carrboro have spoken out against the bills. Carrboro’s resolution opposing the bill was drafted by the Triangle J Council of Governments, a group of local governments, stakeholders and partners that attempt to solve problems in the Triangle region. Triangle J said the bills could cause up approximately $28.9 million in lost revenue across the region.

“That really affects rural communities that use this revenue particularly for infrastructure and it does not spare communities that are Republican-led or Democrat-led—progressive or conservative it doesn’t matter,” Carrboro Alderman Bethany Chaney said in Tuesday night’s work session. “Everything really is damaged by this bill and we think because the regional impact is so great and our region is interdependent we need to support our colleagues’ cause to let these bills fail at the NC General Assembly.”

Seils feared that the bills represent an attack on Orange County and its values.

“In the case of this impact fee bill it’s pretty clear based on the history of the bill that it was meant to benefit particular people,” Seils said. “It had a very clear motive.”