Politics & Government

Wake says 25 schools need enrollment caps. And it places part of the blame on NC leaders.

The Wake County school system may have only grown by 42 students this year, but 25 schools could be placed under enrollment limits this fall that prevent newly arriving families from attending them.

Wake school administrators said Wednesday that the 25 schools are so crowded that they need enrollment caps that restrict which students can attend. With 20 of the schools facing caps being elementary schools, school officials placed much of the blame on how state lawmakers are reducing K-3 class sizes.

“I wonder how many hours have been stolen from instructional, from staff development time across the state to figure out how to solve this mandate,” said Bill Fletcher, chairman of the Wake school board’s facilities committee.

Enrollment caps are a way for the school system to try to shift the burden of dealing with overcrowded families onto newcomers instead of reassigning existing students out of schools. When a capped school reaches an enrollment limit, families who weren’t living in the attendance area by a certain date are sent to a more distant school that has space.

This school year, more than 1,100 Wake students were capped out of their closest schools.

Wake has to deal with how the average K-3 class size in North Carolina will drop from 20 students this year to 19 children in the fall and 18 students in 2020. It’s scheduled to drop in 2021 to a maximum of 16 to 18 students in a class, depending on the grade level.

Republican state lawmakers say the smaller K-3 class sizes will help improve academic performance. But school districts complain that it will be difficult finding the teachers and the classroom space to meet the smaller class sizes.

“We need to get the class sizes down now while we still have some flexibility,” said Christina Lighthall, Wake’s senior director of long-range planning.

Some of the capped Wake schools are already taking steps such as putting two teachers in the same room and are using undersized classrooms. To free up enough teachers in the younger grades, some schools are seeing class sizes of 29 or more students in fourth- and fifth-grades.

Administrators want to keep existing caps on 15 elementary schools: Baileywick, Carpenter, Cedar Fork, Combs, Fuquay-Varina, Harris Creek, Holly Grove, Mills Park, Olive Chapel, Rogers Lane, Scotts Ridge, Sycamore Creek, Vance, Wendell and Willow Springs.

Wake wants to keep caps on five other schools: Mills Park and Reedy Creek middle schools and Fuquay-Varina, Heritage and Panther Creek high schools.

Officials want to place new caps in 2019 on five elementary schools: Highcroft Drive, Hortons Creek, Oakview, Weatherstone and Yates Mill.

Administrators estimate it will cost $400,000 more per year to provide 10 additional buses to accommodate sending students to overflow schools. This doesn’t include the challenge of finding enough bus drivers.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the caps on Tuesday. But the proposal may be revised because of concerns raised Wednesday about some of the overflow school choices recommended by staff.

Wake saw its smallest enrollment growth in more than 30 years, growing by only 42 students instead of the 1,898 newcomers projected. It’s part of a slowdown in growth in which planners project Wake will only grow by 3,800 students over the next decade.

Fletcher said even in a year with relatively small growth, some schools are still extremely overcrowded.

“The countywide growth has slowed,” Fletcher said. “We have significant growth in pockets of the county where we don’t have enough seats, so a solution is to apply a cap and then some folks are inconvenienced to go to a school farther away.”

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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.