School sites should be closer to the Wake County core

June 23, 2014 

It’s one of the most difficult tasks faced by the Wake County school board – choosing where to put new schools.

When the county was smaller by, say a few hundred thousand people, picking locations wasn’t as difficult. A school in the northern part of the county? No problem, just go up Six Forks Road a mile or two and put it in those woods. A need in the western county? Answer it with a school in the little bedroom community of Cary.

But now school leaders have to look at cost, demographic and transportation factors that make the task complicated. As discussed in a recent school board meeting, the answer is no longer as simple as having new schools follow growth. There is a need to select sites that are in a tighter radius in the county, and not on the county’s outer edges.

Having schools closer in enables them to serve more predictable populations in the future. It reduces the chance that schools built near the county line to serve new communities teeming with children will be underused when those communities grow older.

School board member Susan Evans rightly questioned whether the system should rush outward to build schools to serve what could be a radically shifting population.

“In 20 years when those neighborhoods have aged up, we’ve got a bazillion schools around the perimeter of the county,” she said. “Is that going to serve us well?”

Locating more schools closer to the county’s core – obviously there must be some schools farther away – also will help balance their socioeconomic makeup. That balance benefits all students.

The siting challenge is daunting. Wake County is in one of the fastest growing regions in the United States. That means there is speculative development everywhere. The competition for open land that is prime for residential and commercial uses increases land values and the cost of school sites that require a large expanse of open land. The average parcel needed for an elementary school, for example, is 19 acres.

Those types of open properties have become harder to find. The search will become harder still as those charged with buying property for new schools look closer to more populated and – and more costly – areas.

Some school board members suggest establishing a policy that will not allow schools to be built close to the county line; others think an answer may be found by looking at smaller pieces of land and considering site footprints outside the norm.

School board member Jim Martin would like for the school system staff to make downtown sites more of a priority. He’s supported by board member Tom Benton, who likes the idea of unconventional sites in downtown Raleigh that might make for good magnet school locations.

It makes sense from the standpoint of serving a diverse student population and getting them to and from school in an efficient fashion to have schools not so far flung.

Is that easier said than done? To be sure. But, assuming the county’s growth continues, not looking for closer-in sites now will lead to schools that are too widely dispersed, more prone to population shifts and a burden on the school transportation system.

An $810 million school construction bond issue was approved by voters last October. The need for more space is intense. With 3,792 students added this school year, the Wake system has 153,000 children enrolled and is the largest district in North Carolina.

Choosing strategic sites for the new construction now may reduce the need to build more schools in the future.

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