As Brier Creek continues to grow in northwest Raleigh, the Wake County school system is scrambling to figure out where to put an influx of students in an area short on available land.
A proposal to transfer the Brier Creek Elementary campus to a new elementary school near the Durham County line has sparked protests from parents. Some say switching the current school from a year-round to a traditional calendar would leave families with limited options.
Allen Oliver, president of the Brier Creek PTA, said changing the school’s calendar in an effort to maximize the number of seats would hurt local families who prefer the year-round option.
“As a parent, it puts you in a lottery,” he said. “If you win, great. If you don’t, you’re stuck putting the kid on the bus at 6:30 in the morning.”
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Much of the Brier Creek debate has focused on calendar options, but it highlights a larger issue: Wake will need more schools in the fast-growing neighborhood, but much of the land has already been snatched up by developers who built shopping plazas and thousands of homes and apartments.
Wake will need a new middle school and high school in the coming years to serve the Brier Creek community, according to the school system’s long-range construction plans.
But Wake owns only one more piece of land in the area, most likely for a middle school.
“The parcels available are not suitable or extremely expensive and are owned by somebody who wants to put residential construction on them,” said school board member Bill Fletcher, who works as a Realtor.
Parents in Brier Creek shouldn’t expect the same kind of school options they would find in other parts of the county, said Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent of facilities for Wake.
“People are choosing that area to live in,” he said. “Hopefully they go in there with an understanding that there’s a limited supply of schools in the area.”
Brier Creek became attractive to developers in the early 2000s as Raleigh’s growth crept north.
Big-box stores, restaurants and homes went up quickly in the area nestled near the the Durham County line and Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
By the time Wake decided to build an elementary school in the area, land was already hard to come by. So in 2006, the school system partnered with the city to open Brier Creek Elementary, which has a municipal community center attached to it.
“The school board was short on land, so we were trying to help,” former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker said. “It was part money and part where land was available.”
Fletcher, who served on the school board in the 1990s and early 2000s, agreed.
“The Brier Creek campus was always a small and expensive piece of land,” he said. “That’s the best option we had at the time.”
Effects of overcrowding
Brier Creek Elementary was built to accommodate 834 students, but it currently enrolls about 925. Roughly 16 percent of the school’s students are in temporary classrooms.
School system staff had recommended switching Brier Creek to a traditional calendar and opening a larger school, which will be a couple of miles from the Brier Creek campus, on a year-round calendar.
They said the new school, called E-38, will be bigger and better able to serve a year-round population.
Last month, the school board postponed a decision on dropping the year-round calendar at Brier Creek Elementary so members could discuss several proposed calendar changes at once. The board will likely vote on the issue in May.
Overcrowding at Brier Creek has meant students are sometimes switched from one year-round track to another.
Leslie Nager, a Brier Creek parent, said she has received a letter from the school for the past three years saying her daughter might have to switch tracks.
“It’s not as easy as saying you’re on track 4 and you’ll be on there every year,” Nager said. “You’re not guaranteed a track.”
Oliver, the school’s PTA president, said he’s worried about school options as his son moves on to middle and high school. Pine Hollow Middle is planned off of Leesville Road and will open on a year-round calendar, the opposite calendar of the nearby Brier Creek Elementary if WCPSS staff’s recommendation is adopted.
‘Sorting through what’s left over’
Wake expects the Brier Creek area to continue to grow, although likely not as quickly as it has been.
Fletcher said the school system will continue to struggle to build schools in areas with booming residential growth – the places that need more classroom space.
“Big developers are buying up big tracts of land, and we’re having to compete with several somebodies who have very deep pockets in terms of tying up land,” he said. “We end up having to sort through what’s left over.”