Overcrowding taxes schools

Published 9:29 pm Saturday, November 1, 2014

City funding for new schools in North Suffolk is lagging, while current facilities are bursting and new families just keep coming, school district officials warn.

A capital improvements plan approved at the last School Board meeting signals the opening of a new middle school in fall 2018 and a new elementary school the following year.

According to the plan, the school district has budgeted $46.22 million for the 1,200-pupil middle school, the majority equally divided between fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

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But the city, which wholly funds new school projects, has programmed delivery of the final $21.22 million of $44.92 million in fiscal 2018 — a year behind the school district’s plans.

That creates one major problem, according to Terry Napier, the district’s facilities and planning director: The district can’t enter into a construction contract for the new school “until those funds are available to pay that contract.”

The city spreading its share out longer would mean opening the school in fall 2019, a year later than the district plans, “and that’s unacceptable,” Napier said.

Napier says the same problem faces the new 1,000-pupil elementary school, whose projected cost of $29.86 million the school district and city agree on. While the district has budgeted on delivery of the vast majority of funds in fiscal 2018, for the school to open in fall 2019, according spokeswoman Diana Klink, the city has programed the funds for fiscal years 2020 through 2024.

If a construction contract isn’t signed until the end of 2023 or later — a likely outcome, according to Napier’s information — that would push the opening out to the second half of the next decade.

Napier said it takes about two years to build an elementary school from design through to construction. The process is a little longer for a middle school.

“If there’s any question about overcrowding in the north end, just count the mobile units,” he said.

According to school district spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw, 42 mobile units are spread around seven schools in North Suffolk.

With 17, John Yeates Middle School has by far the most mobile units. Among northern elementary schools with mobile units, Florence Bowser has eight, Creekside has seven, Northern Shores has six and Nansemond Parkway has four.

Given the profusion of mobile units, it’s perhaps unsurprising that only two of the seven schools don’t currently experience enrollment higher than their functional capacity.

With 1,007 students, Creekside Elementary School’s current enrollment is 40 percent greater than its functional capacity, according to Bradshaw, while overcrowding is almost 30 percent at John Yeates and 15 percent at Northern Shores.

Klink says the city’s funding schedule would allow the new middle school to open in fall 2018, as the school district intends, with $2.5 million for design set for appropriation in fiscal 2016.

City and school district staff have met with the city’s engineering consultant and are reviewing potential sites for the new schools, according to Klink. The city has appropriated $2.5 million to acquire land, she added.

Napier says that both entities “are going back and forth” and “exploring options” regarding land. No commitments have been made, he said.

Florence Bowser and Driver elementary schools would close when the new school opens, Napier said, while about 200 to 250 Creekside students would be rezoned for the new facility.

From September 2013 through August 2014, the city issued 332 residential building permits for construction in the North Suffolk boroughs — Chuckatuck, Sleepy Hole and Nansemond — up 44 percent on the 231 permits from May 2011 to April 2012.

Napier said overcrowding is particularly impacting Creekside and John Yeates.

“It’s restrooms and those sorts of things that really get taxed to a point where they become inefficient,” he said. “There’s just not a lot we can do about that until we get some of those buildings built.”

Corrections have been made to this story after figures in the School Board’s Capital Improvement Plan were misinterpreted. New school construction costs and the source of funding have been changed.