Schools and high emotion go hand in hand. No surprise there, because debates about education wrap together all the fundamental cultural conflicts of modern society. Resolution of such hot-button issues as funding and curriculum is often sidetracked by personal and political agendas that are submerged in rhetoric about the good of the children. And who can argue with the good of the children? The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have been trying for months to find a suitable location for a third high school. Various projections show a need for the new school within a few years to avoid overcrowding at the two existing high schools; CHCCS administrators say the school must be ready to open in 2006 at the latest.

The process of trying to find a suitable site for the school has been a fitful one. Both current schools are in the northern part of the district, and the school board has been rightfully trying to pick a place that would accommodate the residents south of town, where Southern Village, Meadowmont and other developments have fueled rapid growth the past decade. But developable land in that neck of the woods is both scarce and expensive, especially for a traditional suburban-style high school with a capacity of 1,500 that would include 50 acres of classrooms and athletic fields.

That didn’t stop schools administrators from looking. But various financial and logistical obstacles blocked consideration of the few possibilities they found.

No law demands that schools follow the traditional model, however. Larger cities, after all, have schools on lots far smaller than 50 acres, and urban schools simply make do with the space they have. In order to expand their options, the CHCCS board decided to pursue the possibility of applying urban design principles to the third school. Last October the board hired a Virginia-based architectural firm with expertise in utilizing small and challenging spaces to design the school.

The concept of an urban school extends beyond squeezing everything into tighter quarters. Athletic fields, a gymnasium or a football stadium could be shared off-site with other schools, or the community. Academically, the school could serve as a science and technology magnet or otherwise focus its programs to attract a select group of students. Or the school could simply be designed for fewer students, with other options to cover a shortfall in the system’s capacity down the road.

The school board seemed to be heading down the urban path when it announced in November that a site on Old Lystra Road near Southern Village had been selected as the top choice for the new high school. Though smaller than optimal and hilly enough to pose an architectural challenge, the Old Lystra site could still conform to the urban design model and meet the school district’s needs. The main problem appeared to be the opposition of neighbors, who turned out at a public meeting to protest the decision. Nevertheless, said CHCCS superintendent Neil Pedersen, “This is the first choice unless we get information that it shouldn’t be.”

It only took a couple of months for the administration to switch gears and decide that the best place for the school was on land the county and town of Chapel Hill had designated as Southern Community Park, a mix of green space and recreational facilities that had been in the works for a decade. The school could be “co-located” with the park, an idea first floated by Citizens Advocating for a Third School (CATS), a group of southern district school activists.

In a Feb. 10 memo to Chapel Hill officials touting co-location, Pedersen and board chairwoman Valerie Foushee noted that urban design was still an important component of the plan. “We want to be clear that even though state standards would recommend approximately 50 buildable acres for a 1,000 student high school, we are planning to use a more compact, urban design that could require considerably less acreage,” the memo noted. “In determining the feasibility of other sites, the Board has expressed a willingness to reduce on-site parking and athletic fields. It is expected that such issues would be considered in evaluating the Southern Community Park site.”

The Chapel Hill Town Council refused to even consider the idea, voting 6-3 to close off further discussion on the mattter. Which put the school board back where it had been, at least in theory. Several days later at a retreat, the board whittled the final cut to two sites. Old Lystra Road wasn’t one of them. Instead, the board recommended placing its new school either on Rock Haven Road in the southern part of the district, or at the corner of Eubanks and Old 86, relatively close to the two existing high schools.

The reasons for the decision depend on who’s talking. School board member Gloria Faley says the Old Lystra site was eliminated because its rural character is essentially unsuitable for an urban school, and the location presented safety and transportation problems. But fellow board member Liz Carter says the board reacted to CATS and other vocal southern district residents who lobbied for all the bells and whistles of a traditional campus. “What I’m hearing from the citizens is that they want to have a comprehensive school,” Carter says.

At the retreat, in fact, the board outlined requirements for the new school that virtually eliminated Old Lystra from contention. The high school would be comprehensive, with full athletic facilities, most of the student parking and other amenities of a full-sized school. Capacity would be 1,000, expandable to 1,500. “Having set those parameters, they realized that the Rock Haven site would fit,” says CHCCS administrator Bill Mullin, who attended the meeting.

If this conflicts with the stated goal of incorporating urban strategies in their deliberations, the board members aren’t acknowledging it. “The board is still thinking of an urban school design,” says Faley. Just what that might look like, however, is unclear. “I’m not sure,” says Carter. “I don’t think we’re there as a board.”

Those who have encouraged a fresh look at the school’s design and function are equally confused. “It appears they’re going back to the original, dysfunctional model that North Carolina pushes,” says County Commissioner Barry Jacobs. “Land-intensive, sprawl-inducing and expensive.”

The Rock Haven location has been on the table for a while but has a fundamental flaw: A developer has a contract to buy the land, which would both put the cost of acquisition out of reach and likely require condemnation, which the county is reluctant to do. Busting the budget on the land is simply not possible, according to a county official familiar with the issue. “There is no more money,” the official says. “We’re taxed out. We’re at our limit in borrowing money. That reality is going to have to be absorbed by [the board].”

Which leaves the Eubanks Road site, a 193-acre parcel the county bought in 2001. But if the school board believes a high school there will resemble Chapel Hill and East Chapel Hill high schools in its design, a rude awakening awaits. The area is in the path of the county’s urban growth corridor and close to Horace Williams airport, which UNC plans to develop. And with plans for three schools as well as a park on the acreage, the county will insist on an urban design there as well. County Commissioner Margaret Brown says she’s drafting a letter to the school board explaining the situation.

At this point, little wiggle room exists to explore alternatives. The school board wants to make a decision within weeks in order to meet its perceived 2006 construction deadline; even if they vote for the Eubanks site, many details must be resolved before construction can begin. “I’m not going to sit around another year and wait until 2007,” says board member Faley.

This will not be welcome news to residents in the southern part of the district, most of whom paid fat premiums on their homes for the privilege of living in the CHCCS district. Visions of a sparkling new high-school campus within walking distance are not easily abandoned; Meadowmont and Southern Village homeowners in particular have been spoiled by board decisions to locate elementary schools within their boundaries. And, as two Southern Village residents wrote in a letter opposing the co-location idea, “this is a politically active group that is very used to getting their way.”

Thus far they’ve reserved most of their vitriol for the Chapel Hill Town Council and County Commissioners, whom they have accused of unreasonably obstructing their interests. But the school board and administration share the bulk of the blame, flailing around in a futile search for a site, waffling on design standards, and resisting input from people who could lend their expertise to both. No one from CHCCS, for example, ever asked Orange County officials for advice on the fine points of land acquisition, something the county does routinely, which may well have expanded the menu of options.

And the residents who refuse to consider alternative models for a new school could stand to look in the mirror as well. Their intransigence, finger-pointing and pressure on a weak-kneed school board helped box CHCCS into its current predicament, unsatisfying as it is to almost everyone. They don’t see it that way, naturally. They did it for the good of the children. EndBlock

Contact Burtman: burtman@indy