At Tuesday’s meeting, Raleigh city councilors expressed concerns about Raleigh’s strained school capacity and worried whether or not the problem is being addressed by the Wake County school system.
“If we do not have adequate school facilities to meet growth demand… then we’ve got a train wreck ahead,” said Councilor Thomas Crowder, who referenced a recent Record story which shows that Raleigh had only nine schools built since 2000 —just two more than Cary — even though Cary’s school-aged population grew three times less than Raleigh.
The city’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan designates higher densities of growth in certain areas, which heightened some councilors concerns about Wake County schools’ planning and future capacity.
At a recent meeting with other Wake County mayors and the school board, Mayor Nancy McFarlane said she talked about one such high-density development near Leadmine Road.
The development, she said, “would bring 50 new elementary students to the closest school, [which] is Brooks, which is at 114 percent capacity and so the question I asked was, ‘how would this work with your plan?’”
“If this school [Brooks] is overcapacity and the surrounding schools are also full, do you take students out? Do you move students? And (the school system) said, ‘We don’t know,’” said McFarlane.
“We are aware of demand and yes we would like to have more space,” WCPSS Chief Operations Officer Don Haydon told the Record.
He admits it’s difficult to find the large parcels of land the school system traditionally uses—generally 20 acres for an elementary school—to build a school in Raleigh.
“We have to think outside the box in the city,” Haydon said. “We either have to build something smaller or use an older building that we can convert.”
In terms of finding appropriate school sites in the city, Crowder said, “we need to have this discussion sooner rather than later, because it’s going to get very expensive for the school system.”
Currently, WCPSS has plans for two single-sex leadership academies in Raleigh, as well as a small elementary-level science academy. The two leadership academies were planned to become part of the Peace College campus downtown, but that deal has since fallen through.
The single-sex academies for high school students could be divided between the Governor’s School for the Blind for and temporary classrooms at Millbrook High School.
Haydon said his department is also considering refitting a former Coke factory.
Haydon also referenced his former school district of Minneapolis, where elementary schools were traditionally built on six acres.
Councilor Russ Stephenson suggested cementing the relationship between the city staff and school planners to ensure coordination between the two entities.
“Maybe there are some policy-level items that we might need to be discussing too in how we view the relationship with the school system and how to be coordinating with our own growth plans,” Stephenson said.
Haydon said the municipalities are already working with the school system through a consultancy group called the Institute for Transportation Research and Education, which is part of North Carolina State University.
Haydon said city and town planners alert ITRE to “parcels” of land with growing populations. ITRE combines this with other relevant data and gives it to the school system.
In terms of where to put schools, “that gives us the basic data about what’s going on,” Haydon said. “We learn straight from the horse’s mouth what projected development is.”
Mike Miller is a project manager who works under ITRE’s umbrella with the school system. He said the planning assumptions haven’t changed since 2008. The city’s Comprehensive Plan was passed in 2009.
However, Miller said ITRE will be conducting a new study this summer and gathering data from all of Wake’s municipalities to create new planning assumptions. Looking at the preliminary data, he said, he thinks they’ll change significantly.
Councilors instructed city planning staff to meet with school planners and come back with a report in four to six weeks detailing the school system’s efforts to accommodate the city’s growth and capacity issues.
“Our economic development is tied at the hip to the Wake County Public School System and we just need to have a full understanding and assurances,” Crowder said.
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