A national trend has caught up with Wake County Public School System that has caused district leaders to change the way they think about the future.
The U.S. birth rate has declined in recent years, and it hit a 30-year low in 2017, according to a report released on Jan. 10 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study’s authors attribute this trend to data which shows the reduction in births to teen mothers, delayed ages for starting families, as well as social and economic factors.
Gone are the days of the 2.4 kids and a dog. The national birth rate is now at 1.765, and North Carolina’s keeping pace with that at 1.767. Despite the number of people moving to Wake County, often reported at about 63 people per day, fewer of those people are school-aged children. The report also notes that the birth rate is below the minimum of 2.1 kids necessary to naturally replace the population.
The reduction in fertility rates means fewer kids will be going to school, and that is the trend being realized in WCPSS right now. This year, the 161,000-student school district grew by just 42 students. This number came as a surprise to many since the school system’s budget for the 2018-19 school year contained a forecast of 1,900 new students.
It wasn’t a surprise, however, to school officials who have been tracking this trend and adjusting forecasts downward for several years in a row, according to a presentation made to the Wake County School Board days before the CDC report was released. (Watch the presentation here.)
The school system’s central office enrollment planning staff works with the Wake County Office of Economic Development, the N.C. State University Operations and Research Education Laboratory, and Numerix, LLC to prepare its enrollment forecasts. About a decade ago, WCPSS would plan for as many as 8,000 new students per year, but in recent years a growth rate of about 1.1 percent, or 1,800 – 2,000 students, was a more realistic forecast.
For the past two years, the number of new students has dwindled to a handful in comparison to years past. When only a few hundred new students enrolled in the 2017-18 school year, instead of the nearly 2,000 predicted, it was hard to say if this was the beginning of a new trend or a one-year anomaly. However, this year’s enrollment figures have confirmed that the trend, which was already occurring in other school districts across the state, has finally reached Wake County despite its rapid population growth.
Even though birth rates have fallen, there are other variables that affect student enrollment in Wake County. School officials noted in their presentation to the school board that there’s also an increase in enrollment in public charter schools, private schools, and home schools in Wake County. The presentation also showed that the annual increase in charter schools which serve Wake has drawn some students away. Despite that, the number of charter students in Wake County is still the smallest group of students when compared individually to home schools, private schools, and WCPSS enrollment numbers from prior years.
Additionally, school officials believe that there is an increase in private school participation caused by state-funded tuition vouchers. Families who meet certain conditions, including household income, may receive up to $4,200 annually for private school tuition. This money is paid directly by the state to the private schools, not with any local tax dollars.
Slowing enrollment growth is a concern that needs to be monitored, school board members agree, but the changes are driven by a paradigm shift in demographics rather than a major shift in public sentiment away from public schools.
New Opportunities Ahead
WCPSS has chased its rapid growth for the better part of 30 years. The school system and the county government – along with periodic voter approval – have consistently renovated existing and erected new schools across the county to try to keep up with growth. Doing so has come at the expense of other capital needs, and school officials are looking at this slowing growth as a new opportunity to catch up on deferred maintenance and to respond to legislative changes to class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.
That said, it doesn’t mean there isn’t still a need to build new schools. About 20 of the 187 schools in the districted are capped, which means no new students may be enrolled unless the family lived in the assignment zone before the cap was added. (Read more about capped schools.)
Several other schools are “closed to transfers” because the base assignment zone is so robust that it is close to being capped. It is likely the school board will add five more schools to its capped list this school year. In addition to capped schools, there are thousands of students in modular classrooms, more commonly referred to as trailers, at both capped and non-capped schools.
This is a period of opportunity for the school system to reassess its capital needs for the next several years. WCPSS maintains a rolling, 7-year Capital Improvement Plan, or CIP, which prioritizes renovation and new construction projects. School system and county government staff collaborate regularly and update the plan annually to make sure school improvements are focused on the areas of greatest need while balancing the costs against what the county government can afford.
Most of that capital cost is paid for with bonds, a type of debt issued by governments. This debt costs taxpayers less over time than cash, and the cost is spread out over a longer period, so the burden is shared by people who will use the schools in the future. Wake County government limits the amount of money it borrows and maintains high reserves to ensure it earns top credit ratings to pay the least amount of money on its debt as possible.
The voter-approved referendum last fall allows the county government to issue bonds worth up to $548 million. In addition to the borrowed money, Wake County will use $105 million in tax revenue for a total two-year construction budget of $653 million. Two-thirds of that money will be spent on renovating 11 schools around the county. The remaining third will pay for building five new elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school.
In all, the bond will improve about 10 percent of the county’s schools, but that’s not enough to remove all enrollment caps and trailers around the county. There’s still more renovation and construction that needs to happen over the next decade, which is exactly why the slowing enrollment growth can be considered a welcome event.
Over the next two years, school system and county government staff will continue to evaluate space needs to decide the best way to improve the school system for all students. Another bond referendum in 2020 for Wake County residents is still very likely, and a statewide bond referendum for the 2020 election has been proposed in the General Assembly as well.
While the predictions for enrollment growth have changed, the school system’s space needs will remain consistent for the next several years as WCPSS catches up to its three decades of rapid growth.