Sunday, October 1, 2023

Study calls for new schools, redistricting to reduce NHCS overcrowding

Bellamy Elementary School is the most overcrowded school in the NHCS District, according to a recent facility utilization study commissioned from Cropper/McKibben. (Courtesy photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — It’s time for the district to make room in its capital project plans for new facilities, per a study done on New Hanover County schools. Though recommended action will only solve present overcrowding, not future growth. 

READ MORE: County prepared to provide $9 million more to NHCS to cover additional students, Title IX issues

At NHCS’ Tuesday’s agenda review meeting, Assistant Superintendent of Operations Eddie Anderson previewed the results of a facility utilization study commissioned from Cropper/McKibben. It showed 18 elementary schools, five middle schools, and three high schools are at 96% utilization or above. 

The most overcrowded schools include Bellamy Elementary (134%), Masonboro Elementary (126%), Hoggard High (124%), Ogden Elementary (118%) and Roland-Grise Middle (118%). 

All 43 schools in New Hanover County have a combined population of nearly 25,000 students. A geographical analysis of the facilities with the highest utilization percentage shows students are most concentrated in Porters Neck, Ogden, and the southern end of the county — some of the fastest growing areas in New Hanover.

At the agenda review meeting, Superintendent Charles Foust pointed out Porters Neck Elementary is only three years old and already in need of mobile units. Several other schools across the county utilize them as well, including Roland-Grise and Murray middle schools. 

The only traditional schools operating in the green, or under 86% utilization, are Blair and Castle Hayne elementaries, both at 81%. However, projections show it will move into overcrowded territory in the next three years. 

In the downtown vicinity, he speciality schools — Rachel Freeman School of Engineering and Snipes Academy of Arts and Design — are expected to remain at health capacity throughout the next 10 years. New Hanover High School is expected to drop below 86% beginning in 2026.

The data shows a disparity in the utilization of spaces, which the study notes redistricting will not solve the problem. It states capital construction “will be required at all levels to address current and future overcrowding.” 

“We are growing, but at a pace where we could be more strategic in our planning, so we’re really targeting through studies like this where that space is needed and that will minimize the number of students or families that are affected,” Anderson said at the agenda review. 

Cropper/McKibben’s recommendations include constructing a new elementary school at a 525-student capacity near Williams Elementary School in Silver Lake. The suggestion is to pair the schools, with Williams serving pre-K to second grade and the new school serving grades three through five. 

The study also calls for a new middle school on the SEA-Tech campus in Castle Hayne with a 1,000-student capacity. It suggests moving Laney High to the Trask Middle School building, which would increase Laney’s total capacity to 2,502 seats. Laney has 2,214 students currently housed in a facility built for 1,887.

Also, Pine Valley Elementary, currently enrolling 466 students, should, per Cropper/McKibben, be rebuilt on the same site with a capacity of 525 seats.

The Williams pre-K center and Pine Valley rebuild are part of several priorities the NHCS facilities team identified in early 2022. But after the district was denied state lottery funding, the projects were put on an indefinite hold, along with a proposed elementary school in the Riverlights community. 

Expansions are also outlined at Porters Neck, Masonboro and Aldermen elementaries. Porters Neck would go from 549 to 700 capacity, per the study. In 2022, the school enrolled 605 students. The 576-student Masonboro Elementary and the 291-student Aldermen would both receive an additional 130 seats. 

The elementary and middle schools will need to undergo redistricting upon the creation of any new schools at their grade level. However, Anderson said he sees it more as boundary modifications rather than massive restructuring. 

The study’s plan to balance student enrollment through boundary and feeder pattern changes is estimated to affect 1,500 elementary-, 350 middle- and 950 high-school students. 

Still, the study notes its recommendations will only alleviate current overcrowding and are not aimed at accommodating potential future increases.

“It’s not a cure-all — it catches us up,” Anderson said. 

The assistant superintendent will give his full presentation to the board and the public at its regular Sept. 5 meeting. From there, the board will need to decide what projects it wants to pursue and how it plans to fund them. 

One way is through additional capital allocations from the New Hanover County commissioners. In April, county staff presented similar findings to the commissioners on school utilization and growth trends. However, county strategist John Townsend concluded elementary- and middle- school enrollment has declined to pre-2014 levels and high schools have barely increased. 

Inversely, the county found charter school admissions increased 224% from 2014 to 2022. 

Contributing to the slight slump in public- school enrollment is the state’s declining birth rate — down to 9.26 from 10.99 per 1,000 people in 2010. Townsend’s analysis also demonstrated a slow growth rate for younger populations, meaning there are fewer school-aged children joining the county population in comparison to older individuals moving in from other areas. 

Commissioner Dane Scalise suggested at the April meeting that the county map out the next decade of student growth — which the study from Cropper/McKibben outlines.. Commissioner Rob Zapple was of the same mindset and stated if the county was going to need another school, they could start “laying away a little bit of dough” to make that happen. 

Another option for the school board: a bond. The last time NHCS successfully passed a bond was in 2014. The $160-million bond covered construction of Porters Neck Elementary and replacement schools at College Park and Blair Elementary, along with additions and renovations at several other schools.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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