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No quick fix for crowded schools
Relief is elusive for district
Crowd WEB 1
Students fill the cafeteria for lunch Thursday at Midway, which is the county’s most crowded elementary school. A new school could bring some relief, but school system plans don’t call for it to be built for a couple of years. Officials are studying the situation. - photo by Autumn Vetter

Lunchtime at Midway Elementary School is a fine-tuned puzzle.

Between 10:50 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. some 900 students file in and out of the cafeteria, a room that has just 10 tables. The shifts have been figured out to an exact science.

“It’s a constant revolving door,” said Principal Todd Smith. “They go in every three minutes. By the time one group is finished eating … another group is coming in.”

It’s just part of the daily routine at the county’s most crowded elementary school, which school system projections show could be more than 300 students above its 637 capacity by next year.

“We make it work,” Smith said. “But I won’t lie and say that it’s not a challenge some days.

“We do have some great families and great teachers and that’s been a big positive for us as far as managing the numbers.”

Midway is not alone among elementary schools. Shiloh Point is nearly 100 students above capacity, as is Daves Creek. At the middle school level, Riverwatch’s nearly 1,399 students far exceed its capacity of 1,037.

And with the exception of Forsyth Central, which is about 500 students under capacity, all of the county’s high schools are overflowing.

Forsyth County Board of Education member Kristin Morrissey recently visited North high school. She recalled how she another board member “sat there through lunch periods and there were kids that by the time they got up and got their food, they had five minutes to eat before the period ended … and there was just no place to sit.”

School officials hope to address the system’s seemingly never-ending growth problem with a new facilities plan. If approved by the state, the five-year framework would take effect in July 2014.

Bill McKnight, the system’s facilities director, outlined the timeline for the plan during the school board’s recent retreat.

McKnight told board members that while the growth is a hurdle, it’s not a new phenomenon for Forsyth.

“We’ve always managed to find space to add additional trailers if needed,” he said. “At our peak in 2006 or 2007, we had 320 something trailers. So if you look at the past and you look at where we’re headed now, we really wouldn’t be at quite those same numbers.”

The system’s current facilities plan, which runs through July 2015, calls for a 14th elementary school to be built in southwest Forsyth. The new school would relieve Midway and Shiloh Point.

However, the makeup of the county has changed dramatically since that plan was drafted. The growth was initially anticipated to spike in east Forsyth, where the next high school is slated.

In reality, the bulk of Forsyth’s recent growth has occurred on the south end. That’s why the new plan is needed prior to construction, said Chief Financial Officer Dan Jones.

“Things change drastically in five years here,” Jones said. “When they’re done, they’re not written in stone because they can change. But you have to have a plan in place in order to earn state money.”

To draft the new facilities plan, McKnight said he will reach out to staff members across the system, as well as parents, local school councils and community members.

Once the plan has state approval, the system would be allowed to appeal to the state for funding assistance, which McKnight said is typically a 50-50 split.

During the retreat, board member Ann Crow said the timeline is just delaying the necessary, especially for land-locked schools like Midway, which has only enough room to add a handful of portable classrooms.

“Time-wise, we’re putting this off until 2016 until we open the doors of another school,and we’re just slammed,” she said. “And I don’t see how the schools like Midway can handle it. I don’t know what the contingency plan is for that and what they’re going to do in the meantime.

“We cannot do that to these kids. That just breaks my heart.”

Without state funding to build the $15 million elementary school, the financial burden would fall solely on the county to cut a year from the waiting time. Crow said she’d like to see the system propose a bond referendum in November.

Morrissey said the board could consider another round of redistricting. With new schools potentially opening in 2016, however, that could lead to those same students being shifted two or three times before finishing elementary school.

It appears the immediate solution is quick fixes, such as adding trailers and putting a lot of energy into developing a new facilities plan to not only solve the current problems but avoid future crowding.

“We might look at how we can do some additions on some existing schools,” McKnight said. “What you’re probably going to see, I would suspect, is a combination of additions and some new schools when you see our new five-year plan.”