05/21/07 — School numbers an issue for facilities

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School numbers an issue for facilities

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 21, 2007 1:46 PM

As the Wayne County Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education prepare for their meeting Tuesday to hash out the county's school facility needs and the school system's 2007-08 local operating budget, several questions were raised at a recent commission meeting regarding the school's student population.

In the 1997-98 school year, the student population -- based on the membership on the 10th day of school -- in Wayne County Public Schools was 19,212 students. This year, it is 19,395. That number, however, does not include student populations outside the norm such as preschool.

Yet, in its five-year facilities plan approved on May 7, the school board is asking the commissioners to approve about $105.1 million in new construction and renovations at 16 of the county's 33 schools.

School officials say the need for improved buildings goes beyond the population numbers -- even though those are expected to increase in the next five to 10 years, said Sprunt Hill, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services.

He also emphasized that the attendance numbers being quoted from the schools are averages.

"I can't plan for the average," he said. "I have to have a seat for every child."

The problem the district runs into, Hill said, is that some days the actual attendance is above the average and on some days it is below.

For example, this year, on the 10th day -- the day state funding is based on -- Brogden Primary had 710 students; at the sixth-month mark, it had 747 students. Other schools also saw increases of 10, 15 or 20 students, while some remained steady and others decreased.

Overall at the sixth-month mark, there were 51 fewer students in the school system than on the 10th day -- a decrease, Hill explained, that's most noticeable at the high school level.

Still, he said, "My point is, it's a moving target, and I have to plan for the maximum."

Beyond population growth, though, there are other factors playing into the need for new school construction and renovation, such as the county's shifting population, the age of the facilities, the desire to keep schools and classes small and new demands being placed on the facilities by various programs.

In terms of the last point, Hill explained, some rooms that used to hold classes are now being used for specialized needs such as computer labs, Title I programs and, in some schools, school-based health centers through the WISH program.

At other schools, some facilities are simply becoming old and worn out.

School board member Rick Pridgen noted that former predominately black schools like Eastern Wayne Middle and Norwayne Middle, in particular, need a lot of work.

"The majority (of the $105.1 million) is not necessarily for new school construction. It's for upgrades at the existing schools," he said.

Hill also noted that even though some might disagree, large schools have fallen out of favor with many educators.

"The trend in education is to have smaller community schools," Hill said. "There's something to be said about meeting the needs of the children."

Some in the county government, however, wondered if perhaps it would be better to operate fewer, but larger schools.

Commissioner Jack Best noted that according to the recent study done by consulting company Evergreen Solutions, the county really only needs about 25 schools, not the 33 it has now.

"There's probably nobody more in favor of neighborhood schools than I am, but in this day and time, we can't afford them," he said.

But, Hill noted, there's more to those decisions than just the cost -- some of the best performing schools are among the smallest.

"I understand what they're saying. That's a business point of view, and I understand that," he said. "But I also understand the education side of it and meeting the needs of our students. Bigger is not always better in a school setting.

"We can't say we need to help graduation rates and we need to help our kids succeed and then say just because a school is too small we need to close it."

The other issue playing into the need for facility work is the county's shifting population.

"We've had some tremendous shifts in population within the county. Where the numbers have changed are where there's been tremendous growth, especially in the northern end," Pridgen said.

And, he said, while there are some open seats in schools in other parts of the county, particularly in the central attendance area, those aren't entirely because of the school system's transfer policy.

Students living in one district have priority in enrolling in that district and are encouraged to do so. They can only apply for a transfer if there are spaces available in the other schools.

"If we don't have space available, you can't transfer to that school," Pridgen said.

But, County Manager Lee Smith added, that issue of available space is one that everybody needs to take a hard look at.

"I look at the schools just like I would office space for a business. I think you do have to look at capacity and what's available. I think there are areas of the county where growth will be slow, and I think there are areas that will surprise people 10 to 20 years from now and we need to plan for all that," he said. "I think (school Superintendent) Dr. (Steven) Taylor and the school board have to look at, if they have some space available, is it economical to move some people."

Doing so, though, could mean taking a look at redistricting -- something that Pridgen said wouldn't be entirely out of the question.

"I'm not going to say we're not going to redistrict," Pridgen said. "Anytime you build new facilities you've got to redistrict because those students have got to come from somewhere and as you see more subdivisions being put in close to Goldsboro, rather than further out, I'd say redistricting would be more of a likely thought."