Growth is slowing, but Wake County school administrators say the system needs 17 more new schools by 2022 to keep up with the thousands of new students still expected to enroll.
School facilities staff identified Wednesday the need for 10 new elementary schools, three new middle schools and four new high schools, eight of which Wake still needs to find land to build on. Many of the new schools are located near the current and future route of Interstate 540/N.C. 540, particularly in southwest Wake.
The need comes as the school system is looking for 25 acres for a new elementary school, 35 acres for a middle school and 70 acres for a high school. The difficulty of finding large enough sites for new schools caused Wake school board members to joke about the challenges Wednesday.
“Maybe we can build it over the 540 Interstate, just have an elevated campus,” school board member Bill Fletcher said of finding 70 acres for a new high school near Morrisville.
The school board is working to determine which new schools and renovation projects to include in a building program that will presented to the Wake County Board of Commissioners. School board Chairman Tom Benton said he hopes there will be a joint meeting with the commissioners by late April.
Commissioners are weighing whether to put a school construction bond referendum on the November ballot or to borrow a smaller amount instead, without seeking voter approval.
School staff identified the new schools needed to keep up with 32,000 new students that are projected to arrive in North Carolina’s largest school district by 2025. Michael Miller of N.C. State University’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education said the projected growth was revised downward to account for the popularity of charter schools.
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some of regulations that traditional public schools must follow. There’s been a 42-percent increase in charter-school enrollment among Wake County students the past two years. In that same period, the district’s growth has dropped to fewer than 2,000 new students a year.
“The system is growing, but it’s not growing in all the places that we thought it was growing,” Miller said. “The biggest factor that we felt, especially looking at the numbers this year, is probably charter-school impact.”
Miller said the new projections resulted in fewer elementary schools being needed than previously estimated.
Wake owns or has agreed to purchase property for five of the 10 needed elementary schools. Three of those sites are in the Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina area, with one in northwest Cary and one in North Raleigh.
Of the elementary school sites Wake seeks land for, three are in the Southeast Raleigh/eastern Wake area and the other two are in Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina.
The new projections also mean Wake is no longer looking for a new middle school near the Brier Creek section of North Raleigh. Instead, school staff say there’s only a need for three new middle schools – all on sites Wake owns – near Alston Ridge Elementary in Cary, near Bryan Road Elementary in Garner and near Herbert Akins Elementary in Fuquay-Varina.
Of the four high schools needed, Wake already owns land for one in Fuquay-Varina. The three Wake must find land for are in Holly Springs, Morrisville and North Raleigh.
Benton said county commissioners and local municipalities should help the school system address the challenges of finding school sites.
“One of the most concerning things that I see is: Where will Wake County find the land that is affordable and is the size that we need to build the traditionally sized schools that we build?” Benton said in an interview.