District explores options for growth

Study indicates enrollment will increase

By NANCY WHYTE

With a demographic study showing continued enrollment growth in the Avonworth School District, administrators and officials are now trying to develop a plan to handle the addition of as many as 400 new students in the next five to 10 years.

Shelby Stewman of Stewman Demographics, LLC conducted a demographic study that predicts the enrollment at Avonworth schools will grow from 1,796 in the current school year to as much as 2,200.

Shelby, a retired professor of demography and sociology at Carnegie Mellon University, was hired by the board last fall. His lengthy reportanalyzes such factors as the birth rate in the school district, net migration into the district, the new housing units built recently and alternate schooling.

Concerning birth rate, factors such as fertility rates, the age of the women in the district as well as the trend of delayed childbearing were calculated.

Shelby stated that 830 new homes were built in the school district, almost all of them in Ohio Township, between 2010 and 2018, 80 percent of which were single family dwellings. He noted that some of the new homes are restricted to residents over age 55 and are less likely to be inhabited by children young enough to attend Avonworth chools. Neverthe-less, the net migration of children, particularly preschoolers, into the district has increased. Shelby added, however, that there is no data to support the conclusion that construction of large numbers of new homes will continue.

While enrollment in the district has increased considerably, said Shelby, the enrollment in alternative schooling has decreased. While there is no data available for students residing in the district who are home schooled, the charter/cyber charter student enrollment has decreased from from 47 students in 2010 to between 30 and 39 students over the past eight years, a decrease of 17 percent. Private and parochial student enrollment has remained fairly constant at 200 to 224 students over the past eight years, he said.

In short, after weighing the many factors and noting the trends, Shelby calculated that in terms of enrollment, the most likely scenario is that, over the next 10 years, enrollment in the primary school will reach 500 students. In the elementary school the student population will total almost 700 students. In the middle school, the total will rise to around 325 students, and around 650 students will attend classes in the high school.

Superintendent Tom Ralston noted that the district already has seen significant signs of growth. In 2018, he said, Avonworth graduated 99 students while the incoming kindergarten class for the 2018-19 school year was 170 students. Ralston stated that the projections have implications for the district regarding facilities, staffing, and educational programming. He said, “The district’s board and administration will be using the study for planning purposes in each of these areas to effectively prepare for the future. It is imperative that we plan now to ensure that we are meeting the needs of our students in the future.”

They began to do just that Tuesday night, when various members of the school board, administrators from each building, the superintendent and others met in an open meeting to discuss the various implications of the demographic study.

First, a five-year maintenance plan for each of the three buildings (primary center, elementary building and the combined middle school/high school) and budget were presented. Being a new building, anticipated maintenance costs for the primary center are quite low. Costs associated with other maintenance equipment and vehicles were also added in. The anticipated five-year total maintenance cost is almost $2.9 million.

Administrators from the three buildings outlined current space limitations and problems, discussed possible ways to convert other-use areas into learning spaces or hold classes in multi-use rooms (thus requiring careful scheduling and sharing.) They also explained how the numbers suggest additional classrooms and teachers will be needed in the coming years and/or that changes in the current instructional programs may be required to handle the additional students.

Enrollment in band and chorus has increased dramatically, making it difficult to find spaces to hold the classes, and where to hold performances poses additional space concerns, they said.

Problems will be more complex in the high school than in the lower grades because predicting class size in the high school is difficult due to the various levels of the same subject (for example honors, academic, integrated) offered. In younger grades, the primary concern is the number of students per classroom. In high school, it is the number of students per level and organizing them into classes with reasonable numbers of students. Elective courses are at risk of being eliminated if teachers have a full course load teaching the required courses.

Storage space is a major need, particularly at the elementary building.

The lack of parking spaces at the middle school/high school campus already causes headaches for drivers, and that will only get worse if additional students drive to school.

Ralston steered discussions to possible options for addressing the population projections. Four areas were examined: land acquisition, building acquisition, renovation and new construction. Each has pros and cons and often an option is impossible due to lack of availability, size, cost and other factors.

Dozens of ideas were thrown out and discussed. Some, apparently, according to long-term serving board members, had been considered in the past.

The architect who designed the primary center was present to answer questions and provide advice. Ralston asked him to develop some possible options for solutions. Board member Patrick Stewart asked for the architect’s suggestions as to “what’s the most feasible option” to the problem Stewart described as “bulging at every building.” Board member David Oberdick also asked for cost estimates and time lines to be provided.

Obviously, financial considerations are a factor. Director of Fiscal Management Brad Waters provided information about the district’s borrowing capacity. Waters stated that the school district is “in a pretty good position.” He explained that the borrowing capacity is regulated by the Debt Act, which established debt limits for local government units and states the district’s debt may not exceed 225 percent of the district’s borrowing base. The result of several complicated calculations shows that the the district’s borrowing limit is close to $66 million dollars and as of June 30, 2018, when the district had a debt balance of nearly $36 million dollars. This allows about $30 million additional dollars to be borrowed.

As a side note, Waters stated that the cost to the district of hiring one new teacher is about $80,000 for salary and benefits a year and hiring one new “paraprofessional” costs about $30,000 a year.

The architect also provided some sobering financial statistics. He explained that labor and the cost of construction materials are skyrocketing. When construction on the Avonworth primary center began six years ago, the cost was $280/sq ft. Last year, the cost of the large group instruction addition was $400/sq ft. And he said that last week, when bids were opened for a project his firm is overseeing, the construction costs had risen to $450/sq foot.

An average classroom, he stated, is 1,000 square feet.