Heeding pleas from families, the Wake County school board on Tuesday approved a stopgap solution for overcrowding at two Cary schools, without switching their calendars to the year-round schedule.
With approving parents on hand, the board agreed to spend at least $530,000 to install five classroom trailers for the 2015-16 school year on the fast-growing west Cary campus shared by Mills Park middle and elementary schools. Both schools would remain on the traditional calendar but would shift the burden for coping with overcrowding onto newcomers by sending them to more distant schools that have space.
Board members praised the new option as superior to earlier proposals that would increase capacity by converting both schools to multitrack year-round calendars or spending at least $2 million to install 21 trailers that would have used up the system’s budget for relocating trailers. “There are a lot of positive things about this plan in contrast to the options of spending more than $2 million on a modular installation,” school board member Bill Fletcher said.
The vote drew cheers from the Mills Park families who attended the meeting.
Also Tuesday, the board backed calendar adjustments for the 2015-16 school year to three other schools:
• Alston Ridge Elementary School in Cary would convert from a single-track year-round school to a multitrack year-round. There was less parental opposition to the change at Alston Ridge than the Mills Park schools.
• Wakefield Elementary School in North Raleigh would switch from multitrack year-round to a traditional calendar.
• Ballentine Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina would remain a multitrack year-round school but would lose one of its four tracks.
No forced year-round
The board’s support for the Mills Park proposal is a departure from the way school leaders reacted in 2007 to overcrowding and growth – by converting 22 elementary schools to a year-round calendar over the objections of parents.
School board member Susan Evans, who represents Mills Park, said installing five trailers and leaving in place enrollment caps is “the lesser of the evils,” compared with the other two options.
“I don’t think any of us felt like the calendar conversion was a positive thing,” Evans said. “We didn’t feel like adding lots and lots of modulars was a positive thing.”
The difference from the 2007 response was noted by several Mills Park parents who thanked the board at Tuesday’s meeting. Several parents such as Scott Batchelor said they had come prepared to vent their anger at the board.
“How great is it that the board does listen to what we say, and they do recognize when a room full of families march to school in support of traditional schools,” Batchelor said.
The schedule most families have known for generations is the traditional calendar, in which students get a two-month summer break.
In the year-round calendar, students ditch the extended summer break in favor of three-week breaks at intervals during the school year.
Wake uses two kinds of year-round schedules.
In single track, all students have the same schedule starting in late July.
In multitrack year-round, the students are split into four groups, or tracks, with three in session and one on break.
If the school can enroll enough students, capacity can increase by 20 percent or even by a third.
On Aug. 13, administrators presented different options to deal with the five schools. Since then, parents have weighed in online and at community forums.
More than 200 Mills Park parents and students held a rally Thursday to show their support for the traditional calendar as they argued that the year-round calendar would impose hardships on them.
But parents also said they didn’t want to add 21 trailers to their campus, which would have been placed on the schools’ athletic fields.
A third way
Based on the feedback, administrators presented a new third option on Tuesday. Under the new proposal, the addition of one trailer at Mills Park Elementary and four trailers at Mills Park Middle would leave both schools still over their capacities. This means leaving in place enrollment caps that would have been dropped if the board converted the schools to year-round or added the 21 trailers.
Mills Park Middle School takes students from Alston Ridge, Brier Creek, Highcroft and Mills Park elementary schools. Families who already live in the attendance areas for those schools would still be able to go to Mills Park Middle, but newcomers who arrive after a date that hasn’t been determined could be sent to West Cary Middle School.
Fletcher, the board member, said capping was the most fair strategy for dealing with Mills Park.
“We don’t have enough room in this school for these children,” Fletcher said. “Therefore we are going to make the space available elsewhere and it’s on a per-family basis, as opposed to a neighborhood or what not.”
The cap wouldn’t be lifted until the opening of new schools, such as Pine Hollow Middle, which is scheduled to open in northwest Raleigh in 2016.
Despite the support for the new option, board members said they don’t consider it ideal to leave schools over capacity. Mills Park Middle would have around 1,800 students.
“In no way do we want to indicate that we think this is a positive situation or a path that we hope we have to go down very often for any of our other schools,” said Evans, the board member. “The way I view this is as stopgap measures to carry us for a couple of years until we get some additional capacity.”