Politics & Government

Fewer students are coming to Wake, but leaders say a new bond vote is ‘absolutely’ needed

Wake County school leaders want to push forward with asking voters to approve a local school construction bond referendum in 2020, despite the district only growing by 42 students this year.

Wake leaders say that the district can use the enrollment slowdown to do more to fix up older schools and reduce the number of students attending classes in trailers. A Wake school board committee agreed last week to support an updated seven-year $2.5 billion building program that reduces the number of new schools built to help put more money into renovations.

Some state lawmakers are looking at putting a statewide $1.9 billion school construction bond referendum on the March 2020 ballot. If approved, it would provide around $100 million to the Wake County school system that school leaders say would be welcomed but isn’t enough based on all of the district’s needs.

“It’s looking like there’s going to be a state bond and we need our bond in 2020, and there will be lots of people who are saying, ‘why do you need multiple bonds if there’s going to be a state bond?’” school board chairman Jim Martin said at last week’s facilities committee meeting.

“The point is there absolutely is a need, and so that’s why the earlier and the more often we talk about this — giving the reasons — we’re more likely to have a successful outcome.”

The school board and Wake County Board of Commissioners will discuss the school building program as part of a joint meeting on Wednesday. They’ve previously agreed to a long-range building program that calls for a school bond referendum in 2020 to follow up on the $548 million bond referendum approved by Wake voters last November.

Wake is the largest school district in North Carolina, with 160,471 students. But Wake grew by 42 students instead of the 1,898 newcomers projected this school year.

The slowdown was blamed on three factors: fewer children being born in Wake, the aging of the county’s population and competition from charter schools, private schools and home-schooling.

Under the new, much-smaller projections, Wake is only projecting 1,013 more elementary students and 3,213 more high school students by 2026. Wake is projecting its middle school enrollment will drop by 1,180 students over the next seven years.

The new enrollment projections are leading to a change in how school leaders want to spend construction money.

“Enrollment numbers have changed, growth has changed a bit,” Bryan Roof, program executive in Wake’s school facilities department, told school board members. “How can we take advantage of that to do things that we haven’t been able to? This is a great example of utilizing that opportunity.”

The new plan would increase money set aside for life cycle projects to replace aging components at schools. In addition, 15 percent of annual life cycle spending would go specifically to cover items that didn’t score high enough before on the district’s funding formula. Examples include working on the fit and finish, walls, ceilings, carpet and casework in schools.

Administrators also want to create a new category called partial renovations and replacements (PRIMP) to cover individual buildings or needs on a school campus. Roof said the new category would address how a school that had two great buildings and one in poor shape would have fallen behind in the funding formula to a school that needed to be completely replaced.

Money for two more elementary school renovations are also now included in the updated seven-year plan. Those schools haven’t been identified yet.

At the same time, administrators are recommending dropping from the seven-year plan construction of a new elementary school in southwestern Wake and an elementary school in northwest Raleigh.

“There are other needs that we need to prioritize before these two new elementaries,” Roof told the board.

The decline in the number of middle school students means administrators are recommending a one-year delay on building the new Bryan Road Middle School in Garner, which in turn would lead to a delay in renovating a nearby middle school. Wake tries to time projects so that students can temporarily go to a new school while their campus is renovated.

Wake is also looking now at a combined middle school/high school serving grades 6-12 in Morrisville near Wake Technical Community College’s new RTP Campus. Roof said it could be a specialized career and technical education school where Wake Tech teaches students job skills they can use after graduation.

The enrollment slowdown also is leading to a 23-percent projected reduction in the number of classroom trailers in use. Wake is going from 1,018 trailers now in use to potentially 784 on campuses in 2026.

“We try not to utilize trailers unless they’re absolutely necessary,” said Glenn Carrozza, Wake’s senior director of student assignment. “As we’re starting to see a reduction in enrollments, we can look at working to reduce the number of trailers at certain campuses.”

The last bond referendum in November was approved by 66.7 percent of voters before the extent of Wake’s slowdown became known. But school board members said they think the public will continue to provide support based on the new update to the building plan.

“It’s very inclusive of what our whole county needs,” said school board member Roxie Cash. “It’s just going to be so much easier for us to sell and talk about.”

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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.