The fall semester at Orange County Schools has ended, and report cards have been been distributed for over 7,400 students. This begs the question: how would Justice United leaders grade our working relationship with the Board last fall? For many of us it felt incomplete.
Justice United has allies on the Board who have publicly supported our grassroots agenda for change at OCS. During their election campaign this spring four of the seven current Board members made public commitments at Justice United’s April 10 assembly to increase teacher diversity to match the diversity of the student body, and to hire bi-lingual front office staff in every school.
However, this fall Board Chair Brenda Stephens and Superintendent Todd Wirt were either not willing or not able to meet with JU leaders at a second public assembly planned for November 15, during which specific strategies and benchmarks for these hiring goals would have been discussed.
(It’s important to note that Vice Chair Sarah Smylie and Board Member Hillary MacKenzie had confirmed their attendance on November 15, but were unable to make commitments on behalf of the Board).
Over the course of the fall JU leaders were told the Board now considers our organization a “special interest group” to which the Board cannot be held accountable. Some Board members went as far to express concern that to meet publicly with JU again, on our own turf, would “set a precedent” that they would have to have meetings out in the community with every group that had an interest in the school district. As far as Justice United is concerned, we think this is an excellent precedent to set!
JU believes that we have allies on the Board who want to engage with the community on this issue. We also believe that there are members of the Board who think that change on this issue can only happen on their terms, and only on their turf. The message from some Board members seems to be: “trust us.”
We believe that trust has to be earned. It is rooted in respect, recognition, and reciprocity. JU leaders came out to a Board of Education meeting in October to make our case for collaboration. We call on Board Chair Brenda Stephens and Superintendent Todd Wirt to return the favor, and to come out into the community to meet with us publicly on this issue.
Ultimately our demands are very reasonable. We want a long term public relationship with the Board and Superintendent, and to make measurable progress on increasing teacher diversity and bi-lingual staff.
Specifically, we call on the Board to endorse a working relationship between Justice United and Superintendent Wirt with the goal of shaping hiring strategies and setting benchmarks for the 2019 summer hiring season.
Patrick Watkins, IFC Community House leader and member of Justice United's Affordable Housing Team
It is clear that we need more housing, faster, especially for residents with extremely low incomes: those earning less than $22,000 / year.
There are currently zero units on the private market in Orange County affordable to residents with extremely low incomes. There are only 468 subsidized units available to residents with extremely low incomes, with only 46 new units planned for development in the next five years. This amount is far lower than what is needed. The IFC alone has over 70 beds for homeless residents at HomeStart and the Community House.
That’s why Justice United’s affordable housing team has worked closely with affordable housing service providers and the Chamber of Commerce to develop a new strategy called Master Leasing to get residents into safe, decent, affordable housing more quickly.
Think of Master Leasing as subletting with a social mission. Rather than buy or build units, we would lease them. A non-profit organization would master lease rental units throughout the community at existing market rates and then sublease the units at affordable rates to qualified, pre-screened tenants.
Master leasing allows us to take advantage of the thousands of existing units on the private market as a mid-term strategy to house extremely low income residents while new, permanently affordable units are constructed over the next five years.
In order to make this a reality, we will need to do three things well: partner with private sector property owners who are willing to participate in the program; find a non-profit partner to administer the program; and of course, find funding.
Over the last year our team has made progress on all fronts. We have partnered with Clay Grubb, CEO of Grubb Properties, who has committed up to 10 units to the program. The Community Home Trust, a widely respected non-profit housing provider in Chapel Hill, has agreed to administer the program. Working with Justice United, the CHT has applied to the Town of Chapel Hill's Affordable Housing Development Reserve Fund for two years worth of funding for the first five master leased units.