Wake County high school football players might someday have to leave campus for home games, tennis teams might practice at private courts, and students might park in multi-story decks rather than sprawling asphalt lots.
As large swaths of land become harder to find in a fast-developing county, some Wake leaders say it’s time to rethink the high school construction model, which requires about 64 acres and features several athletic fields.
County commissioners, who are responsible for funding school construction, on Monday urged school planners to change their high school blueprints to require less land.
“We’ve got to start doing something else other than anticipating that every school’s gonna have a football field, every school’s gonna have a baseball field and every school’s gonna have a major parking lot,” said Commissioner John Burns.
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School leaders say they are still seeking land for traditional high school campuses, but they are willing to get creative in some circumstances.
There might soon come a day when the county has to build high schools with off-site parking or off-site athletic facilities that students access via shuttle buses, school board Chairman Tom Benton said.
Large, undeveloped properties are especially hard to find in fast-growing areas like Cary, Apex, Holly Springs and Morrisville.
“The large national home builders suck up every large patch of land that we’d be able to build on,” Benton said. “You have to find new and innovative ways to get around it.”
Under the current construction model, a high school in Wake has 9 acres devoted to buildings and 17 devoted to athletic facilities.
This isn’t the first time county leaders have talked about building new schools without athletic facilities.
In 2006, the school board agreed to put on the ballot a bond referendum that did not include funding for football stadiums at the new Heritage and Rolesville high schools. School board members quickly reversed their decision amid fears that Wake Forest residents would vote against the bond.
At the time, county leaders said Wake would save $2.56 million per school by skipping a football stadium.
This week’s comments come as commissioners consider spending $4.2 million on a 66-acre site near Ten Ten Road for a future high school between Holly Springs and Apex.
A stream, located at the bottom of a large embankment, flows through the middle of the property. Crews would likely have to build a retaining wall and a parking deck to accommodate a standard high school campus.
Commissioners asked: Can’t the school system find more suitable land?
“It’s not a site that any of us would prefer,” said Betty Parker, the school system’s senior real estate director. “But we’ve looked everywhere (along the corridor).”
Wake prefers to build flat, open parking lots because school administrators can more easily monitor them, said Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities.
In 2010, workers built a two-story parking deck as part of renovations at Wake Forest High School. The district might use the same parking model as it renovates Apex High, Desormeaux said.
While parents and students may be willing to accept new-look parking accommodations, Wake school leaders say asking schools to share sports facilities would require a cultural change.
Wake has built smaller theme schools like the Vernon Malone College and Career Academy and the Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Raleigh, which have few on-site athletic programs. Students who attend those schools and want to play sports can try out for teams at Broughton and Southeast Raleigh high schools, respectively.
But the district values on-site athletic facilities because there’s a correlation between athletic participation and academic success, Benton said.
Commissioner Jessica Holmes said she hopes the school district can enter more partnerships with local towns, which have athletic facilities.
“If you’re building a high school in Cary near the tennis park, do you really need to build a school with tennis courts?” Holmes asked.
“They (school planners) are going to have to be more innovative, because they don’t have a choice,” Holmes continued. “You can’t have all facilities at all schools in Wake County anymore.”
Cramped space, school pride
Some parents say Wake should do everything it can to keep athletic facilities at every school, even if it would mean budget cuts elsewhere.
“I don’t think shared facilities are necessary. (School planners) may not be building them the best they can,” said Tim Colburn, president of the Stampede Club at Middle Creek High School in Apex.
Diane Dulaney, president of Cary High School’s football booster club, said she can’t imagine how the school could share its facilities with another school. Cary High is smaller than most in Wake.
“We can barely get our own teams practice time,” Dulaney said. “Marching band practices in the parking lot.”
The county recently built a new $5 million football stadium at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh. Even with the upgrades, Travis Seese, the school’s athletics director, said it would be tough to accommodate another school’s teams.
“Especially in the spring,” he said. “There’s men’s and women’s lacrosse, women’s soccer. Somebody’s going to be on the game field almost every day.”
There’s also another factor: school pride. Seese wondered how other teams would feel if they held a “home game” at Athens Drive, where the football stadium features giant posters of Jaguars and the school’s name in orange and blue letters.
“I know the kids do take pride in their facilities,” Seese said, “knowing that it is their home.”
Anatomy of a Wake County high school
The Wake County public school system needs about 64 acres to build a typical high school. Here’s a rough breakdown of how much land it needs:
20 acres – landscape buffers, stormwater retention, land setbacks and stream buffers
9 acres – main school building, drop-off loop and space for mobile class units
8 acres – unbuildable area for right-of-way, flood plains, etc.
6 acres – bus loop
6 acres – football/soccer/track stadium
6 acres – tennis courts, basketball courts, baseball fields
5 acres – other playing fields
5 acres – parking