UPDATE: The school board voted to adopt the draft planning assumptions at its regular meeting Tuesday. County Commissioners also have to approve the planning assumptions.
Wake County likes to build elementary schools on 20-acre tracts of land. For middle schools, the driving assumption is 30 acres and for high schools it’s 64 acres. That could soon present a problem for capacity-strapped Raleigh – at a time when more schools are needed.
School officials are recommending the school board cement those figures in a meeting later today by approving a new set of “planning assumptions” for the school’s building program. The assumptions will guide the development of the next school bond and the way staffers search for new school sites.
But the planning assumptions do come with a caveat.
“The use of smaller tracts will be considered when necessary, but may require changes to a school’s capacity and educational program,” the draft plan reads.
School board member Jim Martin told the Record that caveat is one of the most important things to note in the draft plan.
“[The 20 acres] is built in, but it’s not fixed,” he said. “When I look at what’s here, I don’t see a 20 acres or bust [policy].”
Martin also acknowledged, “We do need to build or create some more capacity downtown.”
Indeed, the 2011-12 capacity report shows the highest concentration of schools with more than 100 percent capacity inside the Beltline.
Purple shows schools below 60 percent capacity. Schools in the 60 to 80 percent are green. 80 to 100 percent are yellow. And schools going from 100 percent to 130 percent are represented in red.
The capacity constraints could be compounded by Raleigh’s 2030 plan, which opens the door for higher densities in the city.
The last school built in downtown Raleigh was Moore Square Museums Magnet School. The design has been awarded for innovation and takes up one city block; it’s less than four acres, according to county tax records.
But under the guiding assumption of finding 20 acres for every elementary school plot, such schools are the exception and not the rule.
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Understanding How Wake Decides Where to Build New Schools
Space doesn’t have such a high premium in some of Wake’s other capacity strained areas, which include Wake Forest, north Raleigh, Apex and northwest Cary.
“Twenty acres seems quite large,” Raleigh resident David Nightingale told the Record in an email. He and his wife Ellen had an unassigned kindergartener due to capacity constraints this year and were active in organizing Raleigh’s Oakwood community.
“It would be easier to find smaller locations and serve the population directly than to locate 20 useable acres,” he said.
Martin said the draft plan also provides for the conversion of existing building to schools.
“Some traditional program elements might be compromised if such a facility were used,” the draft notes.
The school system opted to make such a move by re-acquiring a former school building to house a new all-male leadership academy.
“You’ve heard me talk about it. You’ve heard the superintendent talk about it. You’ve heard the mayor talk about it,” Martin said. “This is something we are paying attention to.”
“I would argue that your planning assumptions are in the best of all worlds,” Martin continued, “but you’re not so rigid that you can’t deal with reality.”
You can follow Will Huntsberry on Twitter @willhuntsberry or #wakeschoolboard