Johnston County school enrollment grew by 750 students this year, or the equivalent of the population of Princeton Elementary School.
Researchers hired by the school system say live births in the county are down, which should correlate to fewer students entering the schools. But according to the researchers’ projections, nearly half all of Johnston schools will be over capacity by 2020.
“We think they are moving in ... before they get to kindergarten,” Mike Miller, program manager at the OR/Ed Lab at N.C. State University, said during a recent Johnston County Board of Education meeting.
“All signs are pointing to continued net in-migration into the county,” Miller said.
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The OR/Ed Lab, or Operations Research/Education Laboratory, studies birth rates, analyzes land records and conducts community interviews to create enrollment forecasts for many school districts in North Carolina. School systems use that data to decide where to build and expand schools.
Growth in recent years led Johnston voters to approve a $57 million bond issue last fall for new and expanded school buildings. That will pay for a new North Johnston Middle School and 12 new classrooms at River Dell Elementary, among other projects.
Now the Johnston County school system is updating its building plan, which dates back to 2007. The proposal, which has not been made public, is subject to approval by the Board of Education, said Patrick Jacobs, the school district’s chief operations officer.
Alternatives to building
School officials have said they are in the early stages of planning a new middle school in the Cleveland community. But until a building plan wins both school board approval and funding, the school district has to have a backup plan.
Countywide, about 170 mobile classrooms sit on elementary, middle and high school campuses. If one school is about 30 students over capacity, Jacobs, a former principal, said he views that as the equivalent of one classroom.
“We may have to put one mobile unit at that school for growth,” Jacobs said. “It’s a heck of a lot cheaper, and it may delay building for a couple of years as opposed to spending several million dollars to build a wing onto a campus.”
This year, the district moved the fifth grade at Selma Elementary School to Selma Middle School. That brought Selma Elementary, where 10th-day enrollment hit 923, closer to its capacity of about 850.
Johnston County has no year-round schools, which faster-growing Wake County uses to increase the capacity of its school buildings. In Johnston, South Smithfield and West Smithfield elementary schools have nontraditional calendars, but they are not year-round schools.
Jacobs could not say whether Johnston would ever move to truly year-round schools.
“Everything is a possibility, but ultimately those decisions are made by the school board,” Jacobs said.
‘We need schools’
In Johnston County, the greatest enrollment growth is occurring in Archer Lodge, Clayton and the Cleveland community. This year, Corinth Holders High School, in the northwest portion of Johnston County, has more than 1,670 students, or about 400 more than the school’s capacity.
Corinth Holders High has 10 trailers, said school system spokeswoman Tracey Peedin Jones.
“As fast as we are growing, we are about five years behind when it comes to building,” Jones said. “We do try these alternatives; however, we need schools for our students.”
Once a building plan is in place, the school system will work with county commissioners to muster up what’s needed to build new schools – money.
“A plan is great, but without funding, it’s just a piece of paper,” Jacobs said.