Wake schools and county should work together on growth

When it comes to Wake County schools, nothing fails like success.

The school system has provided high-quality schools despite unrelenting growth pressures. The payoff? More growth and more pressure.

The latest manifestation of this dynamic is that the school board is considering capping enrollment at nine schools and leaving caps in place at 10 others. This comes after passage of an $810 million school bond issue last October. The bond money will expand some buildings and add three schools next school year, bringing the 150,000-student system up to 175 schools.

The caps target schools, especially in western and northern Wake County, that are stubbornly overcrowded despite the addition of new schools. The situation is so bad in Apex that Apex High might still have an enrollment cap even though Apex Friendship High will open next year.

Some parents of children who will be denied admission or shifted to new schools as a result of the caps and reassignments aren’t happy. The school board should hear the parents’ complaints and make accommodations where possible. But many parents will have to accept the reality that sending their children to public schools in one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing schools systems will involve disruptions and require patience and flexibility.

Getting out in front

There’s no one party to blame for the crunch at some schools. But overcrowding should signal to Wake County commissioners, school officials, developers and taxpayers that it’s well past time that Wake County got out in front of growth instead of simply reacting to it.

In part, the overcrowding reflects the unwillingness of the current Republican-led Wake County Board of Commissioners to adequately fund schools. Looking back, the board should have approved putting bigger bond issues before voters earlier. Instead, commissioners focused on maintaining the county’s relatively low tax rate.

But even if the county commissioners had approved borrowing more aggressively for school construction, the Great Recession still had to be contended with. Growth slowed with the economy, lessening the sense of urgency, and voters might not have approved bond issues of more than $1 billion while concerned about their jobs and the economy. (Though it must be noted that the recession and its aftermath offered an ideal time to build as interest rates were low and contractors competed for scant construction work. The new $183 million Wake County Justice Center built during and just after the recession came in about $20 million below its estimated cost.)

An encouraging first step

Among the lesson of experience, the new membership of the school board and the four incoming county commissioners, Wake finally may be in a position to get ahead of chronic school overcrowding and the frustrations of enrollment caps and student reassignments.

A first step would be a summit meeting on growth and schools attended by school board members, the members of the new Board of County Commissioners and business leaders, especially developers. They should seek to agree to guidelines for new development and funding for schools that would give school planners a voice in development patterns. All parties would be helped if the schools worked in concert with growth rather than playing catch-up.

Also, school leaders and county officials should focus on alternatives to the expensive template for schools. More schools can be set up in existing buildings. Some could offer a special curriculum that puts resources into teachers while doing without gyms, fields and other expensive facilities.

Wake schools are succeeding. That’s why they’re growing. Now all with a role or a stake in the system’s quality should look at better ways to adjust to success.