Thursday, July 25, 2024

Eastern Pender County schools are over capacity and thousands more students are expected. Now what?

As population and development booms, a team of county planners conducted research to develop new data guidelines that would streamline development and school planning.

An aerial photo of construction at Surf City Schools (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY PENDER COUNTY)
An aerial photo of construction at Surf City Schools in March 2018. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Pender County)

BURGAW — In response to population growth trends, looming large-scale developments, and worsening school overcrowding, Pender County planners have conducted research and developed data guidelines to bridge a divide between the development community and school planners.

The county’s planning department gave the nod to Pender County Commercial Planner Gideon Smith to lead the research as part of his graduate work at the UNCW Master of Public Administration program.

In presentations given to the Board of Commissioners in early December and to the Board of Education in early January, Smith explained that his research revealed school overcrowding, mainly in the rapidly growing coastal districts of the county, and discussed a data model to potentially guide thresholds that would call for different stages of school expansion at specific levels of capacity.

‘A hot button issue’

Senior planner Pat O’Mahony introduced Smith’s research at a December Board of County Commissioners meeting, noting that he and Planning Director Kyle Breuer nudged Smith to conduct the study to begin addressing the issue, one he called “a hot button issue here in Pender County.”

Smith found that amid the population growth of North Carolina’s third-fastest growing county, which U.S. Census models estimate will grow a further 61 percent from 2020 to 2045, certain schools in the eastern part of the county are facing serious capacity constraints. The most significant: North Topsail Elementary (at 156 percent capacity in 2018), South Topsail Elementary (137 percent), Topsail Middle (140 percent), and Topsail Elementary (117 percent).

“This data indicates there is an issue with school overcrowding in Pender County … There’s quite a bit of red ink on that slide,” Smith said, referring to a table of the county’s elementary, middle, and high schools and their 2018 capacity levels, with figures highlighted in red indicating schools over-capacity.

Smith argued that a lack of literature he found among peers and professionals showed there was a disconnect, both locally and nationally, between school facility planning and land use planning, “which limits the ability for county elected officials and decision-makers to properly prepare for population growth.”

“There’s not a whole lot of this work going on in North Carolina, or nationally,” Breuer said last week.

Using data to bridge the divide

Over the course of the study, Smith and other planning staff used GIS data to measure population density figures, along with software called PCensus Analyst, to produce the census data and projections for each of the county’s five school districts.

Along with data collected by the planning department, including the number of households and building permits, he developed a measurement that he said was key to the project’s work – average pupils per household.

“We can use this as a future tool to investigate what the future population growth is going to do, and how many students will be added over the next 20 to 25 years based on residential development,” Smith said.

He illustrated how this data could be used with certain developments currently up for proposal or already approved. One was the master-planned Scotts Hill community called Blake Farm, the residential portion of which was approved in 2017.

Based on the average pupils per household model, the 2,998 residential units proposed at Blake Farm could add a total of 1,617 students – 839 at South Topsail Elementary alone, according to Smith.

“This was included to show what the power of this data is, and how we can use this to consider the impacts of future subdivisions that are being proposed in front of Pender County,” Smith told the commissioners.

Pender County Elementary School Population census and projections (Source: PCensus Analyst).
Pender County Elementary School Population census and projections (Source: PCensus Analyst).

He recommended future capacity thresholds to plan for a tiered level of school expansion: funding activated at 80 percent capacity, school site reservation at 85 percent, allocation of funds at 90 percent, and the actual construction process to begin at 95 percent.

“At 80 percent capacity, it might be good time to start talking about funding for [new] schools. Funding doesn’t happen overnight, and you have to plan years out to allocate these funds,” Smith said.

Other recommendations included an advisory board to implement an annual overview, an additional study to determine the existing status of the county’s schools — whether there are “severe needs or improvements” – and the use of future land use maps to create scenarios of what potential build-out will look like over the next 20 years of expected growth.

“I think it’d be good to produce these scenarios, to see what the county’s up against,” Smith said.

Council members respond

In response to Smith’s presentation, Commissioner David Williams stated that although school sites were purchased in conjunction with the Blake Farms approval, “it needs to be standard procedure for all planning departments and in any particular area.”

Williams also believed such planning needed to be coordinated with EMS and Fire Department needs, which Smith agreed, saying he had discussed such an idea with Pender County Schools Superintendent Dr. Steven Hill, who recommended a framework to include all public facilities.

Although Williams agreed it would be accepted as good practice over time, he also expressed doubt that taxpayers would be up for tax hikes to fund future schools.

“Because right now, it doesn’t seem like you would ever get a school bond passed for the kind of dollars it takes to build a school with, until the crisis was there,” Williams told Smith. “Then you get enough people to vote to do it.”

Support for things like a five percent tax increase to fund future school construction, Williams argued, would be hard to come by with current residents of the county.

“A lot of people are at the point where they say, ‘Hey, let’s wait, make some of these new people coming in here bite off that apple,” Williams said, noting that it would present a large political challenge.

He also said that although you can charge impact fees to developers for things like water infrastructure, the state legislature considered such a fee for schools to be illegal, pointing to a land transfer fee on the ballot approximately nearly a decade ago that “went up in flames.”

“The powers that be won’t let us do it,” Williams said.

Other commissioners suggested using alternating school schedules for over-capacity schools, implementing virtual classrooms used currently in other counties, or exploring a year-round school system.

Moving forward

Breuer believes the county’s leadership will one day adopt the use of pupils per household data to streamline residential development and school planning, and said that the opening of a new Surf City Elementary and Middle School last August helped alleviate some of the issue.

“This is where we believe they will go; if it’s going to be an enrollment issue at the current capacity of a school, will that then trigger some sort of action that will be defined by some sort of adopted policy? We are not there yet, but that’s what our goal is – to work to get there,” Breuer said.

Breuer said the county’s planning department will now work with school staff to further define the methodology, refine the pupils per household number, and consider outside factors that may affect pupils per household in a certain area – like if schools closer to amenities such as parks or libraries generate more students.

Ultimately, Smith said his research was a step that not many other people in the state, or country, have yet taken.

“I find [the study] to be rather innovative, even though it may seem like basic data collection. Not many other counties or municipalities are actively doing this or broadcasting it, or producing their methodology and sharing it with the community. I find that to be exciting, that we could be on the cusp of doing something different,” Smith said.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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