Population growth in northwest Wake County is making it harder to find land for new school sites, raising questions about where those students will attend schools in the future.
Wake County school facilities staff presented early estimates Wednesday that 14 new schools and 15 major school renovation projects are needed by 2024 to keep up with growth that’s bringing 2,000 new students a year. But some of those areas where sites are needed the most are in Morrisville, Cary and the Brier Creek section of Raleigh near the county’s northwest border, where facilities staff said “difficult to find is optimistic” to describe the odds of finding property.
“The ways things are going in western Wake, growth is not slowing down, and if it does slow down in Wake County the last place it’s going to slow down is in western Wake,” said school board member Bill Fletcher, chairman of the facilities committee. “Those are the cards that have been dealt.”
This school year, Wake added 2,369 students to reach 159,549 pupils, making it the 15th largest school system in the nation. Wake’s enrollment has almost tripled since 1980, resulting in decades of new schools being constructed to keep up.
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In May, the school board approved a $1.98 billion school construction program through 2023 that the Wake County Board of Commissioners agreed to fund through bond referendums and other forms of borrowing. The district is now updating the plan to run to 2024.
School facilities staff are calling for seven new elementary schools, three new middle schools and four new high schools over the next seven years. But three locations where schools are needed are along the northwest border, so staff said alternatives may be required.
In addition to competing with residential and commercial developers for land, much of that area isn’t usable because it’s occupied by Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Umstead State Park.
Wake has purchased smaller sites around the county for use as schools, such as the former Bobby Murray Chevrolet car dealership on Capital Boulevard in Raleigh.
“There are some areas where we’re absolutely looking for smaller parcels,” said Betty Parker, the school district’s senior director of real estate services.
But Parker cited how challenging it can be. She said there are not large enough available parcels of land in northwest Cary near the new Pleasant Grove and Hortons Creek elementary schools to build more elementary schools unless the district is willing to radically change the educational program offered.
Wake has also been building schools with more floors now. But there are constraints, such as how the state requires students in kindergarten through second grade to remain on the ground floor.
School board member Jim Martin said that Wake is going to have to discuss at some point moving students into the schools where they have the space.
“We’re not keen on it, but we’re going to have to at some point do some major reassignment,” he said.