September 2, 2014

Wake school board mulls calendar changes or more trailers to relieve crowding

The Wake County school board is considering whether to relieve crowding at Mills Park elementary and middle schools in Cary by converting both schools to a multitrack, year-round schedule, or by spending at least $2 million to add classroom trailers on their campuses.

Wake County school board members are weighing how much they’re willing to spend to satisfy Cary families that want the school system to take any step except switching their overcrowded schools to a year-round calendar.

School administrators recommended options Tuesday to deal with overcrowding and underenrollment at five schools, ranging from changing their calendars to adding more classroom trailers. But the question that drew the most discussion was whether to relieve crowding at Mills Park elementary and middle schools in Cary by converting both schools to a multitrack, year-round schedule, or by spending at least $2 million to add classroom trailers on their campuses.

The school board is expected to decide on the Mills Park schools on Sept. 16. Other staff recommendations to be voted on at the meeting will include whether to:

• Convert Alston Ridge Elementary School in Cary to a multitrack calendar,
• Switch Wakefield Elementary in North Raleigh to a traditional calendar and
• Keep Ballentine Elementary in Fuquay-Varina on a multitrack calendar.

“People are seeing the hard choices that are going to have to be made at some point,” school board vice chairman Tom Benton said. “Nobody is going to be happy with this.”

Much of the debate concerns which schedules those schools should follow.

The schedule that 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 the school board’s facilities committee to deal with the five schools. Since then, parents have weighed in online and at community forums.

“They’re already ready to attack,” said school board member Susan Evans, who represents Mills Park “They feel like here we go again, jerking them around. There’s just so much negative emotion, particularly from the Mills Park community, about us even contemplating such a change.”

Based on feedback, administrators made specific recommendations Tuesday. For instance, administrators recommended not putting Ballentine on a traditional calendar after parents lobbied to keep the year-round schedule. But administrators said they’ll likely have to eliminate track 2.

But instead of one recommendation for the Mills Park schools, staff gave two options: conversion to year-round or the addition of modular classroom units. Both Cary schools are so crowded they have enrollment caps in place, meaning new families who move into an attendance area for one of the schools are sent to other schools with more space.

Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities, said it would cost $800,000 to install more trailers at Mills Park Elementary and $1.15 million at Mills Park Middle, plus an annual lease of $65,000. The trailers would be placed on the schools’ athletic fields.

Desormeaux said there would be other costs, such as compensating Cary for the loss of portions of the schools’ athletic fields, amenities that the town helped fund.

But Desormeaux said an even bigger cost would accompany the road improvements that Cary would likely require to deal with extra traffic. He said the district has paid $1 million in road improvements each of the last two times more trailers were added to schools in Cary.

School board member Jim Martin said that they should ask Cary to waive any fees because the district would be responding to what the town’s parents want. He said the district is also being forced to deal with the growth that the town has permitted in the area.

“We can’t bear all the cost,” Martin said. “We don’t have the resources and revenue to bear the cost.”

Evans said that the board also needs to consider the cost that calendar conversion would have on families.

“We have tried to go down this path of mandatory year-round in the school district once before and it didn’t turn out very well and I don’t believe it will turn out well this time,” she said.

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