Wake County usually grows by thousands of students annually. This year it grew by 42.

Workers use lifts to work on various areas at Oakview Elementary School in Holly Springs in this 2015 file photo.
Workers use lifts to work on various areas at Oakview Elementary School in Holly Springs in this 2015 file photo.

The Wake County school system grew by only 42 students this school year — a shockingly low number that’s raising questions about the future of North Carolina’s largest district.

School and county planners had projected a gain of nearly 1,900 students this year, which would have continued a trend of sustained growth since the 1980s that has made Wake one of the largest school systems in the nation. But with growth being almost non-existent this year, planners are trying to determine what happened and how that will affect the building and operating of schools.

“We’re in a different place than we’ve been in for a number of years,” said Tim Simmons, a Wake schools spokesman.

In the short term, Wake will likely have to return some state money because the district had been funded based on the projected enrollment. It could impact how much money the Wake County Board of Commissioners provides in the budget in 2019.

The slower growth could also change plans to put a local school construction bond referendum on the ballot in 2020. Voters approved a $548 million school construction bond referendum in November.

“Once again WCPSS hoodwinks the community into supporting $1B building plan with inaccurate projections,” said Allison Backhouse, a critic of the school board. “Crying wolf every year has finally come back to bite them.”

But Simmons said two-thirds of the November bond money will be spent on needs that are there regardless of enrollment increases, such as renovations and life-cycle costs such as fixing heating and air conditioning systems.

“That bond is going to alleviate overcrowding,” added Tim Lavallee, vice president of policy and research for the WakeEd Partnership, a business-backed group that supports public education. “We’re not going to say that because we only had 42 more students that we need to stop building new schools.

“Those areas already have schools bursting at the seams. They’re renovating schools that are so out of date that it makes so difficult to meet the programs we need today.”

This year’s growth, the smallest since Wake added 781 students in 1983, is forcing planners to rethink their assumptions. When Wake grew by only 880 students last year, planners had at the time called it an aberration instead of the potential start of a new trend.

“It seems to me we have to change our assumption about what the county and school district are going to look like in the future,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank. “We’ve assumed unlimited growth and prepared for unlimited growth.

“We’ve got to change our view of school construction, student assignment and school revenue.”

Stoops said county commissioners will have a hard time justifying putting a school bond referendum on the 2020 ballot.

School administrators will brief the school board on Jan. 8 about what happened with this year’s enrollment. Simmons said three reasons — a decline in the number of children being born in the county, the aging of the county’s population and school choice — are believed to be the reasons behind the slowdown.

While the district only added 42 more students, the number of Wake students in charter schools rose by 1,532 pupils.

Nearly one in five North Carolina students attend a charter school, private school or homeschool instead of a traditional public school. The percentage is even higher in Wake County.

“School choice is king, and parents know it,” Backhouse said. “Other viable options continue to grow in Wake County, and parents are leaving the public school system because of the rhetoric and mistreatment by WCPSS.

“Reassignments, forced calendars, children split on different schedules — it all equates to a growth of 42 students in a system that dismisses parents’ concerns.”

But Simmons says the decline in births and demographic shifts are believed to be more of the reason for why the district’s enrollment isn’t growing as fast as projected.

Wake isn’t alone both statewide and nationally in seeing enrollment growth slow down.

Experts have begun talking about a national baby bust, the Charlotte Observer previously reported. The nonprofit, education-focused Hechinger Report said in November that some projections indicate total public school enrollment could be down by 8.5 percent in the next decade.

In recent years a majority of N.C. school districts have seen enrollment decline or flatten as charter schools grow, the Charlotte Observer reported.

Wake’s enrollment now stands at 160,471 students instead of the 162,327 children that had been projected for this year.

One result of Wake’s slower growth is that it’s dropped a spot to 16th largest school district in the nation. Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland has overtaken Wake with 162,680 students.

Lavallee of the WakeEd Partnership said the slower growth could be good for Wake. Instead of just trying to catch up with growth, he said Wake can evaluate what it’s doing and make sure all of its resources are being used to the best of their ability.”

“What you still have are 160,000 kids who are at your doorstep who you still have to teach,” Lavallee said. “That still takes people and still takes resources, and resources take money.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.