Study:City schools to continue growing

Posted: May 21, 2013

The Winchester Star

Key Construction employees are performing site work on the South Loudoun Street side of Quarles Elementary School for the installation of portable classrooms to accommodate growth in city schools. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
Plastic fencing delineates an area in front of the South Loudoun Street side of Quarles Elementary School where portable classrooms are to be placed in June.

WINCHESTER — As the city school division continues to grow, enrollment in Frederick and Clarke counties remains relatively flat.

In Winchester Public Schools, officials are in talks about how to accommodate a steady increase in enrollment in its six schools — from 3,917 students in 2010-11 to 4,209 in 2012-13.

A preliminary report from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia states that the growth is due in large part to an influx of Hispanic students and predicts that the city division will grow by more than 500 students (about 12 percent) during the next 10 years.

As a result, officials are discussing ways to accommodate overcrowding and increased class sizes, including building a fifth elementary school and expanding current facilities. Currently, officials are putting in learning cottages at Quarles Elementary School.

The story is different in Clarke County, where enrollment is flat among its five schools.

As of September 2012, there were 2,044 full-time students in kindergarten through 12th grade. In September 2011, that number was 2,043. Enrollment numbers for 2010 were not available Monday afternoon.

Superintendent Mike Murphy said there could be a number of reasons for the lack of growth, including low birth rates (a national trend among certain populations), a dearth of employment options in the county, a lack of public transportation, limited access to services for county residents, higher-than-average home prices and a shortage of affordable housing.

“Perhaps the biggest one is that there are few, if any, new places for young families to move into,” Murphy said.

Enrollment, Murphy said, drives revenue, since the state distributes a large portion of funds to local school districts on a per-pupil basis.

So with Clarke’s enrollment stagnant, when costs like gas, wages, textbooks and software go up, the division has to stretch its resources unless the local government is willing to provide the funding.

“The reason this typically falls on the locality is that revenue from the federal government and the state is in a downward spiral and has been for several years, if not more,” he said.

Murphy said there is a misconception that when a division’s enrollment stays flat, the needs are fewer and the division can maintain its programs with the same revenue.

“What they forget is that the needs of kids change almost daily, parents want ... more, there are more unfunded mandates, et cetera,” he said. “The number of autistic children served by public schools continues to grow, as does the costs of serving these students.”

Following a similar trend is the 18-school Frederick County division, where enrollment of full-time students in kindergarten through 12th grade has been relatively flat over the past several years.

As of September 2012, enrollment was 13,066 — up from 13,016 in 2011 and 13,046 in 2010, according to Steve Edwards, coordinator of policy, records management and communications.

Division officials project enrollment growth of less than 1 percent in each of the next three years.

“As the economy improves along with the housing market, we will likely see enrollment grow at a more rapid pace than we have over the past several years,” Edwards said.

The slow growth has allowed officials to push back building a fourth high school, which is now expected to be open in July 2017 instead of 2016.

— Contact Rebecca Layne at rlayne@winchesterstar.com