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District seeks long-term solution to Northshore growth

  • Written by Deborah Stone
school district growth 001
Construction is on the rise in Northshore after being at a standstill since 2008. Staff photo/Deborah Stone
Though the economy continues to take its sweet time to turn around, there are definitely a few indicators of movement in a positive direction. One of those signs is new housing construction.

This is particularly evident in the north and central corridor of the Northshore School District. If you’ve been anywhere in the vicinity of Canyon Creek or Fernwood Elementary for example, the evidence is there in full sight. Homes and apartment buildings are being put up as fast as earth movers can clear the land.

Construction is on the rise in these areas after being at a standstill since 2008 when the economy tanked. As of spring 2011, more than 3,300 housing units are in various stages of planning through completion.

According to Leanna Albrecht, director of communications for Northshore, the district projects 50 new students per 100 new-construction homes and 10 new students per 100 multi-family units.

“Enrollment is currently up by more than 200 students over last year at Canyon Creek, Fernwood, Kokanee, Crystal Springs and Skyview Junior High,” says Albrecht. “Canyon Creek is now larger than three of the six district junior high schools, and Fernwood and Kokanee elementary schools are projected to exceed 700 students in one to two years. At Crystal Springs, classroom space is maxed out and no more portables can be placed on the site.”

This enrollment trend is expected to continue over the next decade, with much of the initial growth concentrated at the elementary level.

Near the latter part of the decade, the increase will also impact the junior high and high school levels. In 2001, the school board created the Enrollment Demographics Task Force to make informed recommendations to the board in regards to managing district enrollments and demographic changes. The15-member group, which includes six superintendent-appointed and six board-appointed representatives, has been studying the enrollment issue in the north end of the district in depth for the past two years.

“The taskforce has been involved in researching the issue and has worked with land consultants, demographers and architects, as well as other specialists, in the process of analyzing the situation,” says Albrecht.

Evaluation criteria included instructional equity, enrollment capacity, financial/operational considerations, capital expenditures, transportation impacts and staffing considerations.

“This is a very thoughtful group of parents, community members and district staff,” adds Albrecht. “They have put a lot of time and effort into this and have built their recommendations around what they have learned over the two-year period of time.”

The preferred recommendation that the taskforce has arrived at involves reconfiguring grade levels so that elementary school is K-5; middle school, 6-8; and high school, 9-12.

In addition, a new high school would be built on a recently purchased 61-acre piece of property located just north and west of Fernwood.

The taskforce’s alternate recommendation is to build a new K-6 elementary school on 30 acres that the district already owns off of Maltby Road.

Boundary adjustments would be necessary in either scenario. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the options, according to Northshore Superintendent Larry Francois.

“With the alternate option, the advantages are that it would cost less money to build and operate an elementary school versus a high school,” he explains. “It would also be less disruptive due to the fact that fewer service areas would be impacted.”

As for the disadvantages, Francois says, “This is a short term fix and we would be presented with the same problems again down the road. Doing this would also add capacity to the elementary level, which already has excess capacity. It’s just in the wrong areas of the district.”

He also notes that this plan doesn’t address the program challenges of the current K-6, 7-9 and 10-12 grade level system.

If selected, the recommended configuration could be removed as an option for at least 10 or more years. As for the taskforce’s preferred recommendation, Francois acknowledges that there would be some challenges.

He says, “It would require more money on the capital side and cost more to operate. It would be more disruptive in terms of impact on attendance areas and feeder patterns, and when you create a new high school, you would also affect cultural ties and affiliations.”

In Francois’s opinion, however, the advantages of this alternative outweigh the disadvantages. He emphasizes that this option is a good long term solution to the growth issue and that it’s an opportune time to put such a plan in place.

“Northshore is one of the few districts in the state with the current configuration, however state and national standards are all aligned to K-5, 6-8 and 9-12,” he notes. “Logistically, we make things work, but if we change the configuration, we can align our curriculum accordingly.”

He adds, “Ninth graders will have more academic and extracurricular options as they will be in the high school building. Currently, we need to bus some kids to the high school for certain classes. Sixth graders, too, will be exposed to a wider range of academic options if they are in a middle school setting. In the elementary school, where they are now, they usually have only one teacher for all their subjects and this person is not a specialist in all areas. In middle school, they will have teachers who are actually specialists in their subjects.”

Francois emphasizes that grade reconfiguration has the potential to benefit every child in the district, not just sixth and ninth graders, and will have a positive impact for decades to come.

Whatever recommendation the board decides on will be contingent upon the successful passage of a bond tentatively planned for February 2014.

Traditionally, Northshore has an excellent track record for bond approval. In 2006, the district passed a $123 million bond with a 64.75 percent approval rating and in 2010, it passed a $149.2 million bond with a 62.19 percent approval rating.

“No bond or levy has failed here,” comments Francois, “the exception being one that didn’t pass because not enough people voted.” He adds, “There’s a history of rallying to support bonds in this district. The community has continually demonstrated its commitment to education and we are hopeful that we will be successful again in 2014.”

Once the board makes its decision, the district will work with the board to develop a community engagement process specifically tailored to meet the board’s engagement goals and desired outcomes, as well as community needs.

“We want to generate as much awareness of the situation as possible,” says Francois. “This problem is significant and will continue to be even more of an issue with time. Inaction is not an option. If nothing is done, then you will potentially have busing issues, for example, with kids who will need to go to schools that are not in their neighborhoods. We’ll also most likely have to create kindergarten centers, as well as continue making boundary adjustments to mitigate the size of various areas.

“And then we’ll need more portables, which can present problems with transitions – getting kids from point A to B without a lot of disruption to the schedule. You’ll have schools that won’t be able to do one assembly for all the students because the gym won’t be able to accommodate everyone. The list goes on.”

If the board approves the taskforce’s preferred recommendation this fall and the bond successfully passes in February 2014, then the district hopes to begin construction on a new high school in spring 2014 with a tentative opening date of fall 2017.

At that time, the changes in grade level configuration will be in place, along with the necessary boundary adjustments. If the board opts for the alternate recommendation, then the new elementary school is intended to be ready by fall 2016.

“The time frame of all of this is ambitious,” acknowledges Francois. “It’s important that we have a decision this fall so that we can shift all our attention to one of the two options. Then we can proceed with community engagement and feedback around planning and implementation, as well as move ahead with the permitting process.”

Additional information on this issue is available at: www.nsd.org/edtf.

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