The Challenges Faced by Fast-Growing School Districts

Clark County School District in Nevada is the fastest-growing school district in the country. Beaverton School District is one of the fastest-growing school districts in Oregon. Frisco Independent School District is the fastest-growing school district in Texas. In each case, school administrators have to carefully and continually project enrollment and income needs to stay on top of the growth wave. And that’s just the beginning of their challenges. Here are some of the other challenges they face, and how they’re managing them.

Enrollment Projections

Clark County is the fifth-largest school district in the country. Student enrollment for the 2006-2007 school year was 302,763; it’s projected at 314,403 students for the 2007-2008 school year. Preliminary general operating budget for the 2006-07 school year w/s $1.962 billion.

This district uses the Cohort Model in software format to project enrollment 10 years out, yearly inputting official enrollment and the county birth rate.“Updating our projections every year allows us to pull an anomaly into the data, like 9/11,” says Sharon Dattoli, Clark County’s director of Demographics, Zoning & GIS.“We fall within one percent of our model, which is phenomenal.”

The district only uses the last five years of projections to keep the data from being too skewed because, the further out you go, the more skewed it becomes.

“Enrollment is art and science together,” says Maureen Wheeler, Beaverton’s public communications officer. “You can’t just look at numbers; you have to get out there and see what’s coming on line.”

Beaverton is adding 600-700 students each year. In 2006/07, enrollment was 37,329; for the coming year, it’s projected at 37,958. The district uses the Portland State University Demography Department to help with projections, as well as a regional government office, and the county and city.

“In terms of numbers, the school district is filling one elementary or middle school per year,” says Wheeler. “However, based on age and location, the students simply don’t fall that neatly into one package.” Every administrator wishes it were so easy. On the bright side, the district is managing to be within two to two-and-a-half percent of its yearly projections.

In Texas, the Frisco ISD has been growing at a rate of 20 percent to 30 percent for the last 10 years. As of May 2007, enrollment stood at 24,243 students. The district anticipates adding between 4,000 and 5,000 students per year for the next five to six years.

“The district uses an internal demographer, who checks the information given to us and stays on top of immediate changes with developers,” says Richard Wilkinson, assistant superintendent for Facilities and Finance.

And, like most school districts, Frisco does a 10-year projection, which is updated annually, but uses only the most recent two to three years. It’s working. In the last five years, the district has fallen within one to two percent of its projections.

Funding the Growth

When it comes to funding, any administrator will tell you that it’s all about bond issues. “We’ve been very fortunate at having bonds available to meet our growth,” says Frisco’s Wilkinson. (The district’s 2006/07 operating budget was $167.5 million.) So have the other two districts, but that doesn’t mean there’s enough money. In fact, there’s never enough.

In 1998, Clark County voters passed a $3.5-billion capital improvement program. It has recently been revised to reflect expected funding of $4.9 billion. It allowed administrators to open an average of 11 new schools a year, including replacement schools. Because it’s coming to a close, administrators will be approaching voters in November 2008 for a new building program. If passed, the new program will fund 101 new schools and 11 replacement schools.

The Beaverton School District, which has a general fund budget of $600 million for the 2007/08 school year, asks the electorate for bond money about every four to five years, says Wheeler. The district just finished a $147.9-million bond and received voter support of a $195-million bond.

“Our long-range planning committee identified a need of more than $325 million, including such things as new construction, land purchasing and ongoing maintenance and improvement of our existing facilities,” says Wheeler. “What they took to the voters was $195 million. We have to look at works best politically. What have to think about how to put out a package that’s viable. We can’t ask for everything we want; it just wouldn’t fly.”

Finding the Land

Both Dattoli and Wilkinson say that finding and purchasing land on which to site schools is a challenge.

“In areas that are built out, we’re finding multiple families living in single-family homes,” says Dattoli. “It’s tough to find acreage. We have to be creative in designing buildings. We’re needing to settle for smaller parcels and build two-story buildings. The community has not yet warmed up to that trend.”

In Texas, Wilkinson notes that, while the district has been proactive in purchasing sites, it’s more and more difficult to find land. This makes it more valuable. “Land also more difficult to buy because developers want to sell it to homeowners,” he notes.

Siting and BuildingFacilities

Students need buildings in which to learn. Rapid growth means schools that are overcrowded. Just ask Dattoli: “We have portable classrooms. We don’t like them. We want a brick and mortar school for every student. But it’s a fact of life.” At least the district is able to move them (and does move 150 every year) as needs change and new schools come on line.

“To determine how many buildings we need,” explains Dattoli, “we take the total number of students, broken into grades K-5, 6-8, 9-12 (current and projected added together), and subtract from that the total number of available seats (existing and to be completed by the start of the school year). Then we know we need to build ‘X’ number of schools.”

The district also looks at where the new developments are occurring. “We have hot spots throughout the valley,” says Dattoli. “We may be building four schools, but have five hot spots. Because we look for the biggest need, the left over hot spot will probably be the first site built in the next batch of new schools.”

For Wilkinson, the challenge isn’t so much new construction as it is maintenance once the schools are built. “The struggle is because of the state funding situation,” he explains, “which makes it difficult to have money for maintenance staffing and operations.

“As a result, we’re not building until we know a school can be filled to capacity, Wilkinson continues. “We’re prepared to build two elementaries and two middle schools for next year, and we really think we’ll need a third. But we’re waiting for the enrollment rather than waiting for projections. It puts a strain on things because it looks like we didn’t plan.”

Yet another facility challenge is planning for special needs areas and non-school facilities. “We find ourselves building a new administration building or adding to it, and it’s already full with support staff,” says Wilkinson. That’s an area that’s growing as rapidly as the student population. Providing those buildings is difficult because other needs come along and because programs change.”

What the Future Holds

When it comes to the future, all three of these districts see fast-paced growth continuing. “Our data says we have 10 to 15 more years of growth at the current rate,” says Wheeler. “The district will peak anywhere from 2020 to 2025.”

Dattoli says Clark County will continue to grow at the rate of about 10,500 students per year. “I do see the percentage of five to seven percent annual growth coming down as our base grows,” she points out.

One of Clark County’s demographers recently shared with Dattoli that, in 2009/10, Las Vegas will have as many hotel rooms under construction as are now in existence. “Very likely, we will see another boom like we did in the ‘90s and will feel it in the school district by 2011,” she points out.

That said, the district still needs to plan to update and renovate existing schools, another challenge of which the district has already had a taste. “On our ’98 bond, I don’t think we accounted for as much inflation as we experienced,” says Dattoli. “That took a toll on us in terms of modernization. Fees went up astronomically, and we weren’t able to do as much rehab as we had planned because of the cost. That was a real whammy.”

Wilkinson understands: “We’re already studying parts replacement cycles and looking at the age of our buildings. All the new buildings are going to age at the same time, and we have to be prepared to care for them. Our last bond program included $20 to $30 million in renovations, and I’m sure the next bond will include much more.”

For districts experiencing fast growth, the issue is growth. The challenge is managing it. There’s always going to be a gulf between needs and the money to meet those needs. Creative administrators do the best they can, seeking help from those who’ve been there, done that.