NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - New Hanover County is projecting significant population growth over the next 25 years. Conservatively, county staff predicts a population increase of 36,000 people by 2040, bringing the total population to 250,000. High growth estimates say our population will swell to 337,000.
While some of that growth will come in the form of retirees and college students, young families with school age children will also be part of the mix, and will have a significant impact on New Hanover County Schools.
In the next nine years, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is predicting NHCS will grow by nearly 1,000 students, pushing the total student body to 27,042 in the 2023-2024 school year. A private demographer hired by NHCS largely concurs with those projections, and predicts most of that growth will happen at the middle and high school levels.
On top of that, NHCS Director of Facility Planning says for the last five years, our actual enrollment increases have been significantly higher than the projected increases, by a couple hundred students each year.
Completing the 2014 Bond Projects
New Hanover County School administrators are currently executing over a dozen renovation and expansion projects to accommodate the growing student population and aging school infrastructure. Through the 2014 bond, county voters approved $160 million for these projects, ranging from the construction of the new Porters Neck Elementary School, to replacement of College Park Elementary.
Those projects are projected to take six years to complete, and already our needs have increased beyond what will be provided by the school bond projects.
New Needs for More Elementary Classroom Space
One big development contributing to the increased need: a recent mandate by the state capping the class size in grades K-3 at 18, down from a 21 student classroom cap before.
That resulted in a 828-seat reduction in capacity, the equivalent of almost 2 entire elementary schools. That's the need after you consider the increased capacity we will have when the bond projects are completed to build a new elementary school and expand others.
"The state has made the decision to lower the classroom size from K-3, and their intentions are honorable, so that those children will be in an environment to learn more," explained NHC School Board Member and former County Manager Bruce Shell. "The down side is you have to have more classrooms, i.e. more schools."
The developers of River Lights, a huge new housing community along River Road in southern New Hanover County, donated land to the county for an elementary school to accommodate families moving into that development. But funding to construct that school has not yet been approved.
High School Overcrowding
While they reduced the maximum class size at the elementary level, the state allowed high school class sizes to increase from 20 students per class to 24.
Parents of high schoolers are likely very familiar with the extreme overcrowding issues at some of the county's high schools, especially at Laney and Ashley High.
The short term plans to address those problems are several fold. The county is currently partnering with Cape Fear Community College to build a CTE, or Career and Technical Education center at CFCC's North Campus. It's like a vocational high school, meant to teach a trade to students not planning to go on to college.
"The good news there is that with the CTE high school, we're partnering with [CFCC], we don't have to spend money on equipment and labs, they are already there, we would just build classrooms, that would be used by high school in the day time and college students in the night time," Shell explained of the plan.
The CTE is expected to house 400-500 students, which will draw students out of the overcrowded traditional high schools.
NHCS also plans to eventually turn Trask Middle School into a 9th grade feeder center for Laney High School, pulling hundreds of students out of Laney which was more than 700 students over capacity this year, and had to use the cafeteria for classroom space. NHCS owns land on Sidbury Road, the former site of The Rock church. That building will be renovated and eventually used as a replacement middle school for Trask.
Finally, NHCS will expand Mosley Performance Learning Center next year, which helps keep 9th-12th graders on track to graduation, who may have had disciplinary issues in the traditional high school setting. NHCS will also open an In School Suspension (ISS) Center at the former JC Roe Elementary facility.
The latter two projects are more of an effort to keep kids in school and improve graduation rates than they are a direct effort to alleviate overcrowding, although it may help. School leaders said that long-term, 5-10 years out, it will probably be necessary to build an additional traditional high school to handle the population growth. The current estimate to build a new high school is $60 million.
Taxpayers may already see the writing on the wall. We haven't even finished building the schools being financed through the 2014 bond, and we already need additional money for additional schools. $169 million in needs above and beyond the bond money according to NHCS.
Making matters worse, school construction prices are climbing quickly, rising 40 percent in the last five years alone. That means our bond money won't go as far as it might have.
"Every day we wait to fund these needs, they just get more and more expensive….and land gets more and more scarce and consequently more expensive to develop," explained Eddie Anderson, NHCS Director of Facility Planning and Construction.
When asked if property taxes from new households moving into the county might be a way to fund the additional schools, School Board Member Shell said it's not usually enough to fund capital investments, which is why bonds have been the primary means of financing new school construction in the past.
"You've got to be prudent and responsible in how you put more debt on your community. Can we afford it? Yes. But you've got to do that with some moderation. And that's tough. That's the counter wait to where we are right now with catch up. Schools don't get funded until usually there's a crisis," Shell explained of the balancing act between asking for more money and squeezing students into overcrowded schools.
One way NHCS is dealing with the land acquisition issue is doing more with the land they have. The schools are beginning to use a two-story model when building or renovating elementary schools. State building code says kindergarten and 1st grade students can only be on the first floor, and 2nd graders can only be on the second floor, but as long as they stick within those parameters, building up may be the new normal for elementary schools.
Building new schools inevitably means redistricting students to fill them. While there are some immediate redistricting needs with a handful of schools under capacity, and others bursting at the seams, the school board says it will wait until these construction projects are finished to begin shifting students.
"My belief is in 2019 you will see some form of redistricting, and that's probably the least attractive piece for the parents of the children," Shell said.
The development of new neighborhoods may mean some existing neighborhoods get bumped from what has traditionally been their neighborhood school.
Additionally, the capacity at one school on the renovation list will actually get smaller under the current plans. NHCS plans to add an additional story to Wrightsville Beach Elementary School, but because more than half of the student body is now being housed in trailers or a nearby church, there will still not be room for everyone when the renovation is finished and mobile classrooms are removed.
"Right now, there are actually more kids in mobile units than there are in the building. And we really want to get all of those students inside the building and under one roof, but to that, I think the overall enrollment of the school will have to be reduced," Anderson said, adding the Wrightsville Beach campus is the smallest in the entire school system. The plan would reduce the size of the student body from 360 to around 200 after the renovation.
Throughout New Hanover County Schools, there are more than 80 mobile classrooms now housing students, the equivalent of 3.5 elementary schools. While some trailers will be phased out as new schools are added, Anderson does not think they will go away entirely.
"I think mobile units to some degree will always be with us. They are a quick and easy way to deal with overcrowding, where it could take years to design and build a new elementary school," he said.