The Growth Equation

In Las Vegas, the summertime temperatures routinely climb into the 90s or higher. But that's not the only reason Dale Scheideman sweats out the months of June, July and August.

As director of the planning and engineering department for Clark County, Nev., School District, Scheideman is responsible for making sure new facilities are completed and ready to accept the thousands of additional students that swarm to the area each year. Since he joined the fast-growing district in 1991, he has overseen the planning and construction of 154 new schools and more than 150 additions.

“Summer is our busiest time of the year,” says Scheideman. “We cannot afford not to open schools. Those kids are going to be there.”

Last fall, Clark County opened 12 new schools, and before the 2001-02 school year is over, the district will have opened 16 new schools to accommodate an enrollment that rose from 231,000 to nearly 245,000. For the majority of school administrators, those numbers are mind-boggling. Only about 500 of the nation's more than 14,500 school districts have as many as 14,000 students. Yet, for Clark County, adding that many new faces to their rolls is considered a typical year.

When growth reaches the level it has in Clark County, Broward County, Fla., or other booming areas, the challenges it brings to administrators are more substantial, too. Districts confronting rapid growth must find enough money to build needed facilities, secure appropriate sites for new schools, juggle multiple construction projects simultaneously and not let the focus on new facilities overshadow the maintenance needs of the district's existing facilities.

Bigger and faster

Many districts have experienced enrollment increases in recent years as suburban sprawl stretches the boundaries of metropolitan areas:

  • Outside Sacramento, Calif., the Elk Grove Unified School District has grown from about 18,000 students in 1987 to about 50,000 in 2001. The district expects to open five schools this summer and projects that it will have 80,000 students in 2010.

  • North of Dallas, the Frisco, Texas, Independent School District is projected to grow from about 9,000 students in 2001 to 22,000 students in 2006. Two middle and three elementary schools are set to open this summer.

But even that impressive growth doesn't put those districts in a league with Broward and Clark counties. Those districts have the double whammy of being districts that are both huge and fast growing.

Broward County's growth stems from a combination of a high birth rate, immigration, migration to Florida from elsewhere in the United States, and movement north from Dade County. Clark County's growth can be attributed to the boom in the gaming and entertainment industry in Las Vegas that lures workers and their families to the desert.

In both districts, enrollment has been climbing steadily for years, and it is expected to continue for years to come (see sidebar, p. 22).

“We are growing by 14,000 or 15,000 students a year, and there is no great slack off seen for seven or eight years,” says Scheideman.

Securing resources

To build a new school, a district needs to have the money to pay for it, the site on which to place it, and the workers to construct it. Accomplishing those objectives is difficult in most cases; when a district is trying to do several projects at once, it's that much more difficult.

In Broward County, officials have for years struggled to have their facilities keep up with the growth in the student population. For several years, district and county officials pursued a policy known as “concurrency,” which would not allow housing development unless school facilities were in place to accommodate new residents. The district backed away from that effort a few years ago, and now is mulling over options for a bond issue or other tax election to raise money for school construction.

“We are working on a long-range facility master plan as a prelude to proposing a bond issue,” says Lee Stepanchak, Broward County Schools' executive director for facility management, planning and site management.

Prior to securing $3.5 billion in construction funding from a 1998 bond election, Clark County put together a master plan that included assessments of the conditions and the educational appropriateness of all its facilities. With so many facilities to account for, the district brought in a consultant, VFA, to help school officials determine what they had and what they needed.

A master plan helps districts approach their facility needs in a comprehensive way instead of a project-by-project approach, says Peter Cholakis, a VFA vice president. “Now Clark County has all this information right at its fingertips.”

Clark County updates its building assessments every three years, says Scheideman.

In the Elk Grove, Calif., district, Constantine Baranoff, assistant superintendent for facilities and planning, says the master plan the district put together in the 1980s helped officials keep pace with its growth in the last 20 years. The plan indicated that enrollment in Elk Grove would climb to 50,000 at the turn of the century — and it has.

Finding land

When a district is in the market for many school sites and has to compete with the private sector for the most desirable locations, acquiring land can eat up valuable time and resources.

Clark County benefited for years by receiving land from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, but Scheideman says that source is drying up.

“Getting land in the right location is a difficult challenge,” says Scheideman.

Earlier this year, the city of North Las Vegas objected to the district's plans to build a middle school at a site that the city views as prime commercial land.

Broward County has used its leverage with developers to acquire land for schools. Stepanchak says that in many cases, the district has waived the impact fees that developers must pay the school district in return for dedication of land to the district. “We have gotten 491 acres that way,” says Stepanchak. “But it's not enough. We still need to buy more land.”

And the more sites a district needs, the more likely it is to run into neighbors who don't want a school nearby.

“Invariably, we will come across people who will say, ‘Not in my backyard,’” says Elk Grove's Baranoff.

The delays that districts encounter as they try to move from planning to construction can put projects hopelessly behind schedule. Many administrators try to accelerate the building process and make up time by using prototype designs for schools.

“Because we are building so many schools, we don't have the luxury of re-designing every one,” says Baranoff. “We save on design costs, there are fewer change orders, and it allows us to perfect our product.”

The savings from prototypes have allowed Elk Grove to build more schools than it would have using a new design for each project.

Clark County has one- or two-story prototypes for elementary and middle schools, and a high-school prototype.

“The colors and materials can be altered, so the schools won't look exactly the same.”

The prototypes don't always fit comfortably on a given site, but the savings in time and design costs make them worthwhile, says Scheideman. Clark County also prequalifies its contractors, which helps the district build schools more quickly.

To speed its construction, Broward County has used prototypes, tilt-up construction, modular construction and design-build projects.

“We use everything,” says Stepanchak.

Constant movement

When a district is adding schools every year, it's difficult to maintain stability at any given school. Scheideman says that in Clark County, the opening of new schools together with the frequency of families moving within the district means that 40 percent of the students change schools each year.

“We try not to disrupt boundaries too often,” says Scheideman. “Kids may have to move to a different school a couple of times during their elementary years. A new school gets built closer to their home, so they move there. We try to be as sensitive as we can.”

To save construction costs and lessen the frequency of boundary changes, booming districts like Broward and Clark counties tend to build their schools larger. The typical elementary in Broward County houses 1,100 students, says Stepanchak. In Clark County, an elementary is designed to hold 700 students attending nine months. But because many elementary schools use a year-round calendar, the capacity increases to 900 students.

“We do load the schools up,” says Scheideman.

In Elk Grove, year-round schedules allow the district to increase elementary-school capacity from 800 to 1,100 or 1,200.

Another common method for fast-growing districts to gain classroom space quickly is the use of relocatable classrooms.

“We have about 2,000 portables,” says Stepanchak. “We move them to the need.”

Scheideman says that in Clark County, district-wide enrollment projections have been fairly accurate, but for individual neighborhoods, the projections can be off.

“There are always surprises,” says Scheideman. “Where students turn up is an educated guess. The portables take care of the hot spots.”

Clark County has about 1,300 portables; in a typical year, the district needs to relocate 562 of them.

Portables allow fast-growing districts to meet current growth without saddling the school system and taxpayers with facilities that may not be needed in the long term.

“Using portables, we don't overbuild to the degree that we have expensive property to manage and maintain,” says Baranoff. “When a neighborhood rejuvenates, we still have a facility available to handle the new growth.”

Remember the past

With the flurry of building projects that fast-growing districts must contend with, it wouldn't be surprising if some of the older schools in the system felt overshadowed or neglected.

“The older schools tend not to get upgraded and receive the kinds of improvements they need,” says Stepanchak. “We try to keep a close eye on that.”

In Clark County, the district's facilities-assessment system helps officials stay on top of the conditions of its older buildings.

“We're working on that very hard,” says Scheideman. “We can fix them up to some degree, but they're still older schools.”

When the district is able, Clark County tries to provide equitable facilities to all its schools. For instance, Scheideman says, when new high schools were equipped with synthetic tracks on their athletic fields, the district decided to install similar tracks at all the district's high schools.

The key lesson that administrators learn from coping with many building projects simultaneously is one that can apply to any school official managing the simplest building addition: have a good plan.

“Whether you're building one school or a hundred, good planning is the key,” says Scheideman. “You have to know where you want to go.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].


SIDEBAR: Through the roof

Since 1985, K-12 enrollment in U.S. public schools has been rising — but nowhere more than in Broward County, Fla., and Clark County, Nev., the fifth- and sixth-largest districts in the nation. If enrollment growth were a track meet, those two districts would have lapped the field several times.

Broward County has grown from 127,474 students in 1984 to 260,892 this year. Clark County had 89,627 students in 1984, and now has 244,766. The relentless growth will continue for at least several years, according to projections from each district.

Year

Broward County

Clark County

1996-1997

217,219

178,896

1997-1998

223,633

190,822

1998-1999

230,552

203,616

1999-2000

239,960

217,139

2000-2001

249,923

231,125

2001-2002

260,892

244,766

2002-2003 (projected)

267,235

258,742

2003-2004 (projected)

275,200

277,418

2004-2005 (projected)

279,303

292,681

2005-2006 (projected)

284,834

306,949


SIDEBAR: Soft economy fuels college's enrollment surge

In the fall of 2001, the Wayne County (Mich.) Community College District, which includes the city of Detroit, had 10,800 students, full- and part-time, attending classes on its five campuses.

But when the college opened its doors in January 2002 for the spring semester, officials found quite a crowd waiting to get in. Enrollment skyrocketed to 17,200 students — a 60 percent jump.

Chancellor Curtis Ivery attributes some of that growth to aggressive marketing and more career-oriented and technical programs that the school has initiated in the last five years. But Ivery admits that he wasn't expecting the sudden surge of students this semester.

“We didn't anticipate the economy would be taking a downturn,” says Ivery. “When there is higher unemployment, people return to school. We were in a position to respond to the need.”

That response has put some strain on the college's resources. Some courses can accommodate larger class sizes, but classes with a finite number of lab stations or computer terminals are more difficult to expand.

“Once you get beyond the lecture courses, you're limited in the kind of space you have available,” says Ivery.

Wayne County has taken underutilized space designed for specific programs, such as dance studios or gymnasiums, and used it as more general classroom space.

“We've had to be very creative,” says Ivery.

In serving an adult clientele, a community college has more flexibility in scheduling. To accommodate the surge in students, Wayne County has scheduled more classes on weekends and evenings. Offering more night and weekend courses is not a panacea for space problems; the number of instructors and administrators willing to work those hours is limited.

Community colleges have another option not available to K-12 public schools: they can cut off enrollment when it reaches the breaking point. For some of the school's most popular programs, Wayne County has had to turn away students.

“Some of the classes related to health care, such as dental assistants, have a waiting list of 1,000 or more,” says Ivery.

Wayne County has considered establishing satellite campuses in storefronts to provide more space, but so far it hasn't had to go that route. Still, Ivery says his campuses don't have the room to handle many more students.

“If these enrollment trends continue, we'll have to find more space,” he says.

But will the growth continue?

“I would love to be able to say we would continue this momentum forever,” says Ivery, “but we don't know what will happen.”

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