Wake County schools aren’t growing like they used to. Will voters give them $1 billion?

In December 2015, construction workers scrambled to complete Oakview Elementary School in Holly Springs, built with funds from an $810 million bond issue approved by voters in 2013.
In December 2015, construction workers scrambled to complete Oakview Elementary School in Holly Springs, built with funds from an $810 million bond issue approved by voters in 2013. 2015 News & Observer file photo

The Wake County school system is seeing its smallest growth in 34 years, gaining only 880 students while charter schools grew by nearly double that amount this school year. Amid the slowdown, voters could soon be asked to approve a record $1 billion school construction bond referendum.

School and county planners, who had projected that Wake would welcome 2,200 new students this school year, are calling this year’s figures an aberration. They project the district will pick up nearly 1,900 students next year and 24,614 over the next decade. But that’s below the growth rates in the 2000s, when schools got more than 3,000 new students each year.

Slower growth could complicate the pitch for a school construction bond in November. Voters could be asked to borrow $1.1 billion all at once or split the funding between two referenda, in 2018 and 2020. The money would help pay for a $2.3 billion program to build 11 new schools and complete extensive renovations to some older school buildings.

School leaders and Wake County commissioners say they are optimistic voters will support a bond, as they have in previous years. The last school construction bond was approved in 2013.

“I think this community clearly understands that education is one of the few things we do as taxpayers that has a positive return to us,” said Wake Commissioner Erv Portman, who serves on the board’s education committee.

But others question the need for such a big bond, which would raise the property tax rate between 3 and 3.5 cents, or $97.50 more per year on a $300,000 home.

“I don’t think people can buy into and embrace the emotional rhetoric that they’re putting forward with that, based on enrollment figures and trends,” said Joey Stansbury, a local conservative blogger and political activist. “I would have to question, given the growth patterns, is there a need to have that much money sitting idle taken from taxpayers?”

Beyond the bond measure, a slowdown in growth could have sweeping impacts for families. The school board could point to it as a reason to move away from year-round schools, and support from state lawmakers, who control much of the school district’s purse strings, could fade.

Slower growth could also be a factor in the school system’s search for a new superintendent, as Jim Merrill plans to retire Feb. 1. Wake County schools have never had to do much to market themselves as new families have flocked to the Triangle. But with so much competition now, from charters, private schools and home schools, will Wake turn to a leader who will focus on persuading parents to choose traditional public schools?

The Wake County school system continues to grow, but at a slower pace than in previous years. Wake County Public School System

Statewide trend

Like Wake, many school districts across North Carolina have seen slower growth. First-month enrollment numbers this school year showed the state gained only 3,500 students from the same point in 2016. Previously, the state had been growing by about 6,000 to more than 14,000 students each year since 2008.

The Republican-led state legislature in 2011 lifted the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state and began in 2013 a program that provides taxpayer funding to help some families attend private schools.

This school year, enrollment is down at several districts in and near the Triangle, including Durham, Franklin, Granville and Harnett counties, according to data presented by Wake.

But Johnston County schools gained nearly 1,300 students this school year, which some say is contributing to slower growth in Wake. School board member Bill Fletcher said during a meeting Wednesday that families might be drawn to lower housing costs in Johnston.

“Long perceived as a place of residence for commuters working in the Triangle, Johnston County and (Johnston County Public Schools) have shown growth trends which have typically paralleled those seen in Wake County for at least two decades,” Wake schools staff wrote in a recent report. “Growth seen this year in JCPS warrants a closer examination of regional population dynamics impacting Triangle counties.”

First-grade teacher Morgan Perry gets her class ready to head to lunch at Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. Wake County school leaders say they are seeing slower growth because of the rise of charter schools. Ethan Hyman

Wake school leaders also point to other explanations for slower growth:

▪ Charter schools in Wake gained 1,512 students this school year and now educate nearly 13,000 children. That’s roughly a 13 percent growth rate, compared to less than 1 percent for Wake. Two new local charter schools are set to open next fall. Charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some rules traditional schools must follow, can open relatively quickly – within a year to 18 months. Wake school leaders say that makes it harder to predict the impact those schools will have on the district enrollment.

▪ The percentage of school-age children in Wake has dropped. Children under 5 made up 6.3 percent of the county’s population in 2016, down from 7.9 percent in 2007. Children under 18 made up 24.5 percent of the population in 2016, down from 26.1 percent in 2007.

▪ Meanwhile, the percentage of Wake residents age 65 and older has jumped. They made up 10.7 percent of the population in 2016, up from 7.6 percent in 2007. Senior citizens are expected to account for more growth in Wake over the next decade than any other age group.

▪ The number of babies born in Wake County dropped in 2012, when the country was still recovering from the economic downturn. That led to smaller kindergarten enrollment this year, according to school leaders. This school year, Wake has 11,664 kindergarten students, down from 12,057 six years ago.The number of kindergartners in Wake is expected to climb in the coming years.

Kindergarten enrollment for next fall started this week, and thousands of families are deciding which educational option is best for their child.

Amanda Pearce enrolled her daughter, Grace Turner, in Wake schools on Monday. She said she wanted Grace to attend a public school, at least at first, like she and her husband did.

“For her to experience what we did with public school – riding the bus – those are some of my fondest memories, and I want her to share those, too,” Pearce said.

The bond

Wake must return $1.5 million to the state since the district fell below enrollment projections this school year, according to information from the state Department of Public Instruction. The school district has an annual budget of $1.26 billion.

That worries Monika Johnson-Hostler, chairwoman of the school board, who says schools don’t get enough state money anyway. She said now is the time re-examine how North Carolina funds schools and to push for more per-student spending.

Johnson-Hostler said she would like for every family to choose traditional public schools, but “we are absolutely realizing that parents deserve choice.”

“I think we’re a great district, and I’ll continue to plug that,” she said. “I think it does serve us well to talk about who is choosing us and how many options we have.”

The Wake County school system has seen increased competition from home schools, private schools and charter schools. Wake County Public School System

It would be good if Wake’s next superintendent can help market Wake – the 15th largest school system in the country with 160,429 students – to families, said school board member Bill Fletcher. But that responsibility shouldn’t fall solely on one person.

“We really are dependent upon those who know us to share their good stories and the successes that they’re experiencing with our school system,” Fletcher said. “We’re doing great things for young people – preparing them for success beyond just being able to fill in a bubble sheet for a state-mandated test, but actually preparing them to participate in a global economy.”

Slower enrollment increases also raise questions about the need for year-round schools, which have helped Wake deal with growth. A multi-track year-round school, where students are split into four groups, can increase a building’s capacity by as much as 33 percent.

Wake has gone from 51 multi-track schools in 2010 to 36 this school year, partly because of complaints from parents about “mandatory year-round schools,” and also because of slower growth.

Parents in Holly Springs lobbied the school board last fall to open a new elementary school on a year-round calendar, but the board opted for the traditional calendar. The fight, which got heated at times, could be the start of more disagreements about school calendars.

But school leaders and Wake commissioners for now are looking to next fall, when a bond referendum will be on the ballot. Wake County voters have typically supported school construction bonds, most recently in 2013.

School leaders are also dealing with new state mandates for smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, which will require more classrooms and more teachers.

“We are still facing a major issue next year with class size,” Moore said. “And that’s another impact in terms of having to build new schools as well.”

But some are skeptical about whether voters will say yes to borrowing $1.1 billion.

“It certainly seems that we could manage with a much smaller proposal being sent to taxpayers that would get their buy-in,” said Stansbury, the conservative blogger. This request they’re making just begs further questions about budgetary decisions within the school system.”

Pressley Baird: 919-829-8935, @pressleybaird