Wake anticipates 60,000 more students by 2020

Staff WriterSeptember 22, 2010 

  • School administrators estimate that 19 new elementary schools, six new middle schools and eight new high schools are needed by 2020 to keep up with future growth.

    It currently costs more than $20 million to build a new elementary school, more than $40 million to build a new middle school and more than $70 million to build a new high school. With inflation, the costs will likely rise over the next several years, but the price tag would already easily exceed $1 billion.

    Administrators are also projecting that all those new elementary and middle schools will operate on a year-round calendar. Year-round schools can save on construction costs by holding more students than a traditional-calendar school by being open all 12 months with students sharing use of the building.

    Administrators say they'd need to build even more schools if they opened on a traditional calendar. The new school board majority broke with recent practice by opening a new middle school on a traditional calendar this year.

— Wake County school board members, already grappling with overhauling the student assignment model, now also face the daunting prospect of more than $1 billion in new school construction over the next decade.

School administrators kicked off planning for the next school construction bond issue by telling board members Tuesday that at least 33 new schools need to be built by 2020 to keep up with student enrollment. Although administrators avoided giving dollar estimates, it would conservatively cost more than $1 billion to build that many schools based on current construction estimates.

That price tag doesn't include the hundreds of millions of dollars that will also be needed for renovation projects at aging schools. But it does underscore the cost of keeping pace with growth that could add roughly 60,000 students to Wake schools by 2020, creating a need for almost 40,000 classroom seats above the capacity of current schools and those already planned.

"It's a lot of money," said school board member Deborah Prickett. "I don't know where we'll get it."

The size and cost of Wake's school needs also puts more pressure on board members to bring a bond issue before voters sooner than they might like given the recession. Administrators have mentioned May 2012 as a possible referendum target.

"The longer we wait the more it will hurt us," said Ron Margiotta, school board chairman. "But I don't know how we can go out to the public in this economy."

Assignment plan push

Meanwhile on Tuesday, members of the school board majority pushed to accelerate completion of the new student assignment model in order to have at least partial implementation in the 2011-12 school year.

The new plan, which replaces promoting socioeconomic diversity in schools in favor of neighborhood schools, would have an unknown impact on the number of schools that must be built. The blueprint the school board's student assignment committee is working from would divide Wake County into 16 neighborhood school districts.

Tony Gurley, chairman of the Wake board of commissioners, said county and school staffs have said there's no reason to assign a date for a bond issue until they know the specifics of a new assignment plan.

"This is just the early stages," Gurley said. "I think they have to come up with the assignment plan as part of the building program."

The last bond issue, a record $970 million plan, was approved by voters in 2006 with talk then of the next one being in 2009 or 2010.

Although growth has slowed because of the recession, Wake is still projected to reach 200,000 students by the end of the decade. Wake has 143,235 students so far this school year, making it the 18th largest school district in the nation and the largest in the state.

Don Haydon, the school district's chief facilities and operations officer, said that Wake will be 39,500 classroom seats short of what is needed unless the 33 new schools are built.

The growth projections used in the last bond issue turned out to be far higher than the number of students who have actually enrolled in Wake. School and county planners have said they hadn't anticipated the recession would slow growth so much.

Cost and public perception about the new student assignment model could affect how much voters are willing to support a future bond issue. It's uncertain how supporters of the old diversity policy, who traditionally have backed bond issues, will respond.

"If I'm going to count my money, I'm not sure I'd count my money to a board that makes decisions like this," said school board member Anne McLaurin, a member of the minority faction.

A price tag of $2 billion or more by the end of the decade based on new schools, construction and inflation sounded like the right amount to Gurley. But he said it's unknown whether that will be right for voters.

"Whether we can afford it or not, I don't know," Gurley said.

Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith contributed to this report.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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