One of the reasons our school board is considering closing some of its elementary schools is that it is planning to build three new, large elementary schools to handle the expected increase in enrollment over the next ten years. Building and running three new schools, while maintaining all of our existing schools, would be expensive. But can the school board be sure that we need three new schools? There are several reasons to wonder:
1. Enrollment estimates may well be too high. The district hired consultants to evaluate the capacity of its existing schools and the likely enrollment trends. The consultants concluded that by 2022-23, the district would have between 7,696 and 8,390 elementary students. The consultants recommended that the board build for the high end of that range: about 8,317 students. But if the actual enrollment is at the low end of that range, we could end up with about 600 fewer students – which means that one of those new elementaries (which are planned to hold 500 students) would be unnecessary.
2. Capacity estimates are probably too low. The consultants’ capacity determinations are geared toward making only partial use of existing buildings, and so are probably unrealistic. Look at Longfellow, for example. Longfellow has 19 classrooms. Yet the consultants determined that it could hold only 258 students, even with the addition of a multi-purpose room. Set aside two classrooms for art and music. That still leaves 17 classrooms for 258 students: that’s 15 students per room.
Fifteen students per room! We’d all love to see class sizes that small, but all the construction in the world won’t make it happen: the district can afford to hire only so many teachers. Right now, class sizes average about 22 students per room, and there’s no reason to think that that number will be going down. If Longfellow averaged classes that size, it could use only 12 of its 19 classrooms before it exceeded the consultants’ idea of its maximum capacity. Again, leave two classrooms for art and music, and you’d still have 5 empty classrooms.
The same is true for most other schools. Even the district’s newest school, Borlaug Elementary, could fill only about 21 of its 26 classrooms under the consultants’ capacity limits, if there were 22 students per room. District-wide, we could fill only about 298 of our existing 405 classrooms before exceeding the consultants’ idea of our current capacity. Even setting aside two rooms in each school for art and music, that would leave 69 classrooms unfilled.
Those rooms could not be used for special-ed or preschool classrooms, unless there was a corresponding cut in the number of gen-ed students in the building; otherwise, you’d exceed the consultants’ capacity limit. Because special-ed and preschool classes tend to be smaller, using the rooms for those purposes would reduce the number of unfilled rooms, but not by much.
I understand that capacity is about more than just room counts; schools also need adequate space for gym classes, lunchrooms, libraries, etc. Keep in mind, though, that the consultants believe that these are our capacity limits even if we build the proposed additions, such as multi-purpose rooms, onto many of the schools. It’s true that some aspects of the existing buildings won’t change – the hallways won’t be any wider, for example – but we have managed to use these buildings, with many, many more students in them than the consultants believe they can handle, for years. Sure, in an ideal world we’d rebuild all the older schools with more spacious hallways, classrooms, and common areas. But since the district has no choice but to continue using most of its existing schools, it’s hard not to see the consultants’ capacity calculations as unrealistically gold-plated.
Even setting aside four classrooms in each building for other uses, we currently have enough classrooms (not counting temporaries) to hold 7,238 students at 22 students per room. That’s almost 700 more than the consultants calculated. Even allowing a pretty big margin of error, that difference could significantly reduce the need for a third new elementary school.
3. New private schools are opening. In just the past few weeks, plans for two new private schools have been announced. One of them aspires to enroll over a hundred students this fall, and eventually significantly more. Whether it will succeed, of course, is anybody’s guess. But these schools are an additional reason to think that we may not end up at the high end of the consultants’ enrollment projections. Losing even 100 or 200 students to new private schools, ten years out, could mean that we’re much less likely to need that third new elementary school.
So we may well get fewer students than we expect, and we probably have more room than the consultants say we have. Does it make sense for the board to decide now to close existing schools, when it’s quite possible that even ten years from now we won’t have enough students to justify building a third new elementary?
When people in North Liberty wanted a new high school, they were told for years that planning would begin only when enrollment projections reached a “trigger point.” It would seem odd if we not only planned to build three new elementaries, but closed existing schools to do so, when we don’t really know whether we’ll need them even ten years from now.
Why not take a wait-and-see approach on that third new elementary? Instead of closing schools to prepare for construction that we may not end up needing, the board could pursue Scenario 1c, which preserves our existing schools, and it could hold off on deciding whether to build the third new elementary until it’s clear that enrollment will make it necessary. If it doesn’t look like we’ll be at the high end of the enrollment estimates, the district might not need the extra capacity at all. If it needs a smaller amount of new capacity, it could consider somewhat larger additions to existing buildings (like those proposed in Scenario 4c, which would accommodate 600 students) instead of buying property and building an entirely new school. Scenario 1c has the added advantage of being the clear favorite of people who attended the community workshops.
The district’s attachment to building three new elementaries is what’s forcing hard choices about school closures on the community. If we end up with three shiny new elementaries and not enough students to put in them, won’t we regret that we closed existing schools to buy them?
(A note on the numbers: I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to obtain the current average gen-ed classroom count. There were 7080 elementary students enrolled last year, and, judging from the school websites, there were approximately 319 gen-ed classrooms in use: that’s 22.2 students per room. Some of those 7,080 students, though, were special-ed students, some of whom were in separate classrooms, so 22-student-per-room figure isn’t exact, but I don’t think it can be too far off. In any event, you can be sure that the district will put more than 15 students in each classroom.
I know there are many people out there who are better informed than I am about these issues; I welcome any corrections or additional information on the numbers, and my interpretations of them, in this post.)