More students – or not?

Published 12:53 pm Wednesday, November 1, 2017

School Board questions population study it funded

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

In a dispute over future enrollment numbers, Isle of Wight County schools superintendent Dr. James Thornton recently told developers that they could look at the modest enrollment projections for the division, or they could look at reality.

“At Smithfield High School, there are no empty classrooms,” Thornton told the Isle of Wight County Planning Commission during a public hearing concerning additional housing units at Benn’s Grant.

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School building capacity in the northern end of the county has been the subject of some interest and debate between housing developers and the division in recent months, and after an unexpected surge in students this year, a lot is still unclear about exactly what kind of growth the division is anticipating in the next five years. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

A study commissioned by the School Board in 2016 that projected about a 4 percent growth in 10 years has not been helping to clarify matters for county officials.

The study was conducted and presented by FutureThink last November and did not factor into its projections housing developments that have already been approved in the county. Rather, the agency relied on live birth data, historical enrollment, community demographics and current housing information to arrive at its conclusions, which predicted modest growth in the division for the next decade.

School Board member Vicky Hulick disputed the study at the time, calling the approved housing developments “an important factor” in predicting future growth.

Thornton has also argued the flaws of the 2016 study, most recently at an Isle of Wight County Planning Commission public hearing on a proposed increase in housing units at Benn’s Grant (see related story xxx). The Planning Commission tabled any action until a clearer understanding of the impact for schools could be obtained.

The division had previously declined by 91 students from 2011 to 2016.

The enrollment projection and capacity report remains posted on the division’s website, however, and was cited by the Benn’s Grant developers in its community impact report within its proposal for more units.

“Those numbers were provided to us by the school system,” said East West Communities Senior Vice President of Project Management Aaron Millikin of the study in dispute.

Thornton said that according to projections from the state, the division was supposed to see a decline of 20 students this year. Instead, it saw an increase of 55 overall.

“We’re busting at the seams in the northern end,” Thornton said last month in a request to the Board of Supervisors to hire an additional seven teachers at Smithfield High School, which grew by 73 students this year alone.

In its more conservative estimates, Benn’s Grant developers East West Communities predicted an increase of 48 students emanating from its proposed housing expansion, nine at Carrollton Elementary, 10 at Westside Elementary, 13 at Smithfield Middle and 16 at Smithfield High.

Six more students at any grade in Carrollton Elementary could spur the need for another teacher and additional classroom space, according to Thornton’s written response to the developer’s community impact report, which had concluded the housing expansion proposed would have a minimal impact on the schools.

Westside would face a similar situation, according to Thornton, requiring two additional teachers and two classrooms.

Both elementary schools are approaching full programmatic capacity. Carrollton Elementary enrolled 632 students this year, with a capacity of 700, and Westside has 809 students enrolled with a capacity of 825.

“We’re at the brink of putting up some educational cottages or trailers,” Thornton said at the Planning Commission public hearing Tuesday, Oct. 24.

Thornton said in his written response to East West’s projections that both Carrollton and Westside would require trailers for extra classroom space should the housing units go through, costing conservatively around $100,000 each. A new bus for Carrollton would also be required, according to Thornton, bringing the total conservative impact on the school division, including new teachers, to $657,100.

The division’s capital improvements plan (CIP) has included a new northern end elementary school since before Thornton came on board in the division three years ago. The new school, estimated at $22 million, does not have a fixed date of implementation in the CIP, but rather was something the division has said it would need to monitor closely.

In an email to Planning and Zoning Director Amy Ring regarding the Benn’s Grant development, Thornton said the division is not ready to say whether a new elementary or middle school in the northern end is needed without further study and input from stakeholders. However, any additional teachers would spur the need for mobile classrooms at Carrollton, Westside and possibly Smithfield High School.

It’s not just Benn’s Grant that’s looking to expand in the northern end of the county, however.

The Smithfield Planning Commission recently recommended approval for the next phase of development for Cypress Creek, which will have 152 new lots, 91 of which will be age restricted. Cypress Creek’s expansion will likely generate another 76 students, according to Thornton, with an additional financial impact of $800,000 for the division and all of the same capacity level concerns at the northern schools.

Thornton said in an email that the division is now looking at two options for future growth, including a new building, as well as renovations to current buildings “in order to have a comprehensive plan for growth” for all grade levels.

Smithfield High School is up for $3.5 million in building upgrades in 2018-19, according to the CIP.

Renewed discussions of capacity are on the horizon, and the division will likely have its first meetings about how to manage student increases at the beginning of next year, according to Thornton.  {/mprestriction}