Slowed growth in Wake County (N.C.) district may alter construction plans

Dec. 27, 2018
The 160,000-student district saw an enrollment increase in 2018-19 of only 42 students.

The Wake County (N.C.) school system, one of the nation's largest, grew by only 42 students this school year — a surprisingly low number that’s raising questions about the future of the state's largest district.

The Raleigh News & Observer reports that planners had projected a gain of nearly 1,900 students this year, which would have continued a trend of sustained growth since the 1980s. But with growth being almost non-existent this year, planners are trying to determine what happened and how that will affect the building and operating of schools.

In the short term, Wake will likely have to return some state money because the district had been funded based on the projected enrollment. 

The slower growth also could put the brakes on plans to put a bond referendum on the ballot in 2020. Voters approved a $548 million school bond in November.

Two-thirds of the November bond money will be spent on needs not related to enrollment increases, such as renovations and upgrades of heating and air conditioning systems.

This year’s growth, the smallest since Wake added 781 students in 1983, is forcing planners to rethink their assumptions. When Wake grew by only 880 students last year, planners had at the time called it an aberration instead of a start of a new trend.

School administrators will brief the school board on Jan. 8 about what happened with this year’s enrollment. District spokesman Tim Simmons says three factors — a decline in the number of children being born in the county, the aging of the county’s population and school choice — are believed to be the reasons behind the slowdown.

While the district added only 42 more students, enrollment of Wake students in charter schools rose by 1,532 pupils. 

Nearly one in five North Carolina students attend a charter school, private school or homeschool instead of a traditional public school. The percentage is even higher in Wake County.

In recent years, a majority of North Carolina school districts have seen enrollment decline or flatten as charter schools grow.

Wake’s enrollment now stands at 160,471 students instead of the 162,327 children that had been projected.

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