School enrollment estimates will sway planning for future

In recent years, predicting Lawrence school enrollments has been, at best, tricky.

Langston Hughes School, located on George Williams Way west of Wakarusa Drive, is an elementary school in an area of the city where new homes are being developed.

The city’s population has grown, but not its school enrollment.

In 1999, the district had 10,471 students. Today, the official count stands at 10,003, including 322 students in the district’s virtual school, two-thirds of whom live outside Douglas County.

Actual in-the-classroom enrollment is less than 9,600.

“I challenge anybody to look at all the growth that’s gone on – and is still going on – in Lawrence and say we should have projected losing students,” said Tom Bracciano, the district’s director of operations and facilities planning.

“What’s happening goes against history.”

Enrollment affects budget planning. This year, district officials projected a 280-student increase in enrollment. But only 57 additional students showed up, creating a 223-student deficit, and a $892,000 budget shortfall.

The district receives about $4,000 in state aid for each student. The district will review a long list of proposed cuts during the school board’s Monday meeting.

“It’ll be everything from cuts in administration to putting off some textbook purchases,” school Supt. Randy Weseman said.

Jim Hays, a research assistant at the Kansas Association of School Boards, has studied school district growth and decline.

“You’re growing,” he said, referring to Lawrence proper, not the school district, “but a good percentage of your growth is in (university) students and retirees – baby boomers who loved their college experience and want to move back.”

Neither group, Hays said, brings significant increases in public school enrollment.

“They’re not of child-bearing age or propensity,” he said, noting the trend is occurring in other university towns, too. “Look at Manhattan (school district). It’s lost enrollment every year for the last 11 years, and it’s happening in Columbia (Mo.) and in Champaign, Ill., and in Madison, Wis.”

Bracciano, who lives near Eighth Street and Monterey Way, said he’s noticed another trend that may be unique to Lawrence.

“Housing in Lawrence is so expensive that when the kids grow up and move out, their parents are staying put,” Bracciano said. “That’s certainly the case in my neighborhood. When we moved here 15 years ago, it was all kids and baby strollers – the sidewalks were full. Now, it’s all couples. You don’t see a lot of little kids anymore.”

Neighborhood schools

Though the district’s enrollment isn’t growing, the city’s population continues to move outward.

“Lawrence is pretty well hooked on neighborhood schools,” Bracciano said. “It’s been that way since the 1900s, at least. Look at East Lawrence where, until a few years ago, there were four schools – Cordley, East Heights, Centennial and New York – in an area that, today, would be served by one school.

“You can look at that say ‘Boy, that was poor planning,'” he said. “But every one of those schools served a neighborhood at a time when most students walked to school. It was that way because that was the standard at the time.”

The same holds true today, Bracciano said, noting that as areas south of the Wakarusa River, west of the South Lawrence Trafficway or east of O’Connell Road are developed, the neighborhoods’ tax-paying residents will expect neighborhood schools.

To keep pace with this demand, the district last year paid $1.2 million for 50 acres north of Clinton Lake. It’s also shopping for land south of the Wakarusa River.

The district, school board member Sue Morgan said, is uncomfortable buying land.

“It’s one of those ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations,” she said, noting that on one hand it doesn’t make sense to buy land when the district isn’t growing; on the other hand, if it didn’t buy ahead of the market it would end up paying considerably more.

Another problem: As soon as the district buys land, developers assume plans call for building a school there.

“That’s not necessarily the case,” Morgan said. If a more suitable piece of property becomes available, the district might prefer to broker a trade.

“We get in these situations where people think all kinds of decisions have been made when, really, we don’t know if that’s where a school should go,” Morgan said.

The district isn’t planning on building another school anytime soon.

“The high schools are at about 1,300 students now,” Bracciano said. “When they get to 1,500, they’ll be at capacity. But with enrollment being what it is, both schools have room to grow.”

Instead of building another junior high, the district – and voters – have decided to expand Central, West, South and Southwest junior highs.

Each of the junior highs are designed for 500 kids, Bracciano said. Rather than building a fifth school, installing a fifth administration and hiring a fifth staff, the board decided to add to the current facilities.

“That’s why you saw all the portables (classrooms) come in,” Bracciano said. “It’s just so much cheaper to add on than it is to build and staff a whole new school.”

But as the portables became increasingly unpopular, the district proposed major expansions, which became part of the $54 million bond issue voters approved in April.

“When we’re finished, all the junior highs will be designed for 700 kids,” Bracciano said.

There are no plans for a new elementary school.

“Not at this time,” Bracciano said. “The numbers aren’t there. In fact, there’s been a downward trend in our K-12 numbers.”

If the downward trend continues, Weseman said, the district will begin weighing the benefits of consolidating schools.

“My thoughts? I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Weseman said. “I think there’s going to be some big, unexplained spike in the numbers that’s going to take everybody by surprise. And then people are going to want to know why we didn’t plan for it.”