Wake County school administrators are planning to build elementary schools close to the county’s borders, where growth is concentrated, but some school board members instead want more new schools close to downtown Raleigh.
The school system is looking for sites to locate schools that would be financed by the $810 million school construction bond issue approved by voters in October and in a future bond issue. The locations will determine how the school board assigns students to these new schools while weighing concerns such as providing diverse enrollments.
“In 20 years when those neighborhoods have aged up, we’ve got a bazillion schools around the perimeter of the county,” school board member Susan Evans said at Tuesday’s board meeting. “Is that going to serve us well?”
She said the board needed to “look a little more towards the center” of the county.
Evans says that even though growth is strong near the county’s borders now, she worries that the system will overbuild new schools in the suburbs and not be able to keep them full decades from now. It’s easier to assign children to schools in the central areas of the county to balance population and diversity than to send them to schools farther away.
Wake needs more schools to keep up with post-recession growth. With 3,792 students added this school year, the system has 153,000 children enrolled and is the largest district in North Carolina.
Wake, Durham and Harnett counties were among eight counties in the state that grew by more than 2 percent in the year that ended in July 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Wake grew by 2.3 percent, to 974,289 residents.
The Raleigh-Cary metropolitan area – Wake, Johnston and Franklin counties – was the 11th fastest-growing in the nation since the 2010 census, according to the Census Bureau.
With the help of N.C. State University’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education, school administrators identified 5-mile-wide target circles for 23 future elementary schools. Most of the sites track the current and future route of Interstate 540.
‘Going to explode’
Many of the new school sites would be in western and southwestern Wake. School board member Bill Fletcher said the area of Wake west of N.C. 55 “is just going to explode in the next three years.”
“The subdivisions coming out of the ground are numerous,” Fletcher said at Tuesday’s board meeting. He said the county will need new schools both in the suburbs and closer to downtown.
But Evans said the board needs to think about what the area will look like down the road.
“While I understand that the density of new neighborhoods is strong along that western corridor and really strong along the most southern corridor, and so that looks like that’s our immediate need, I have a concern from a long-term perspective,” she said.
Joe Desormeaux, the school system’s assistant superintendent for facilities, said it’s getting harder to find large enough parcels because of competition from residential and commercial development for land.
The challenges resulted in the Wake County Board of Commissioners’ approval in April of the purchase of a school site in northwest Raleigh that’s partially located in Durham.
On Monday, Desormeaux presented to commissioners a site in Holly Springs at Holly Springs New Hill Road near Green Oaks Parkway. Desormeaux said school officials try to locate schools in the center of the circles suggested by NCSU data. But several sites are located either at the edges, such as the Holly Springs site, or outside the original boundaries.
“It is getting more and more difficult finding sites toward the center,” Desormeaux told commissioners.
Toward the borders
Last week, Desormeaux presented to the school board an updated list of locations for new elementary school sites. Several circles moved farther from the center of the county, reflecting population trends, locations of recently acquired sites and existing school capacity.
But school board member Jim Martin said he wants to push the district away from looking so close to the county borders. He said that placing them near a county line limits the areas from which schools can draw students.
“As we look at student assignment issues, we need the most flexibility – not so we can juggle around assignments – but so as neighborhoods ebb and flow, we don’t get ourselves kind of stuck in, ‘We have a school here but to fill it we’re going to have to draw from longer distance away,’ ” Martin said.
Martin suggested looking at prohibiting schools within a certain distance of the county line, perhaps 2.5 miles or 5 miles. He also advocated building more schools in downtown Raleigh, a direction school administrators have not recommended.
“It just strikes me that for long-term planning it would make a lot more sense if we would build so that we would have a more usable draw area and not sort of get ourselves into the corner of the chessboard,” Martin said.
Support for downtown sites
The data NCSU uses to help Wake look for new sites is based on where students live, not where they go to school.
Martin urged staff to move searches for downtown Raleigh sites up the priority list. He said they’ll have to consider things such as using parcels smaller than the 19-acre plots traditionally used for elementary schools.
School board vice chairman Tom Benton backed Martin, saying school officials may need to use nontraditional facilities in downtown Raleigh, potentially for more magnet schools.
“We’re needing to be able to give Facilities and Student Assignment some more suggestions, directions, input, etc.,” he said. “And as we’re continuing to struggle with capacity and the issue of diversity, I think that always has to be part of that discussion.”
Desormeaux said in an interview after the meeting he’ll seek more guidance from board members on how soon they would want him to make changes in the search process. Under an agreement signed this year, staffs of the school board and the county Board of Commissioners are supposed to work together on finding school sites.