Sullivan County school enrollment projected to drop

J. H. Osborne • Apr 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — There’s more “surplus” than “shortage” when it comes to gauging whether or not Sullivan County’s school system has enough room — now, and in the next 10 years, a period in which the system’s overall student population is projected to keep dropping.

That’s according to information presented to county officials Monday by a Knox County group hired by the Sullivan County Commission to study the school system’s long-range needs.

A 131-page report from the study rates each school in the system on how many students it can hold — using three methods to determine capacity — and includes current enrollment, as well as projected enrollment five years out and 10 years out.

County officials could use the report to decide key “efficiency” questions for operating the school system, such as whether some schools should be closed, consolidated, renovated, rezoned or replaced with new buildings.

It could ultimately provide a strategy for spending a $50 million bond issuance supported by a majority of county commissioners about a year ago.

Projected enrollment numbers are provided under three growth scenarios: accelerated (representing a “turnaround” in recent population trends); moderate; and low. Factors used to calculate enrollment projections include birth rates and housing development trends.

The report does not make recommendations but concludes with a list of “findings,” all based on the middle growth scenario and using a capacity formula based on function.

Among the report’s findings:

•This school year, Sullivan County schools have room for 16,683 students systemwide. With current enrollment at just over 12,000, the system is operating at about 72.1 percent of its capacity.

•In five years, for the 2012/2013 school year, the system is projected to lose nearly 850 students, down to total enrollment of 11,170.

•Enrollment is projected to decline another 159 students, to 11,011, by fall 2017.

•Ten of the system’s 16 elementary schools are above 85 percent capacity this year, putting them at the threshold of being crowded. But seven of the 10 are between 85 percent and 89 percent capacity, meaning space shortages are not problematic, but should be monitored. The three others — Bluff City, Cedar Grove and Valley Pike — are at 91 percent capacity. Within five years, Cedar Grove’s capacity is projected to drop back to around 85 percent, then rise again to nearly 87 percent by 2017. The other two schools, however, are projected to near — and in Valley Pike’s case, exceed — 100 percent capacity, and stay there until 2017.

•Two other elementary schools, Mary Hughes and Weaver, are projected to exceed 91 percent usage by the 2017/2018 school year, while three more will rise into the “red flag” range of 85 percent to 90 percent capacity: Brookside, Central Heights and Indian Springs.

•Colonial Heights Middle School (CHMS), currently operating at 97.2 percent capacity, is the county school “requiring most immediate attention to address school crowding,” but by the 2012/2013 school year, its usage is projected to drop to 81.6 percent, “the result of Kingsport annexations in the Rock Springs area.”

•“In fact, most schools in the South Zone were impacted by the annexations.”

•While CHMS is currently near capacity, “several middle schools are operating with substantial surplus, especially Sullivan Middle and Holston Valley Middle schools.” Blountville Middle School is also listed as “leading the way in excess space” among the county’s middle schools by 2012/2013.

•“Like schools operating at capacity, schools that are well below efficient operating levels demand a close look at short-term and long-term enrollment change. Sullivan Middle, showing only 39.4 percent usage, is a priority.”

•None of the system’s four high schools — North, South, Central and East — shows signs of crowding. “North High, in fact, shows considerable space surplus, currently operating at just over 50 percent of functional capacity.”

•By 2017/2018: North’s enrollment is projected to drop to below 45 percent capacity (734 students, compared to 866 this year); South’s capacity is projected to be at about 57 percent (894 students versus 1,105 today); Central is projected to be at 58 percent capacity (838 students, down from 1,058 this year); and East High is projected to have 1,020 students (68 percent capacity), a gain from 1,004 this year (67 percent capacity).

•City annexations are not to blame for the county school system’s declining student population. “Since 2002,” the study said, “Sullivan County systemwide enrollment declined 768 students. If current city system students living in areas annexed since 2002 were added back into the Sullivan County system this year, only 57 students would be returned, and the net loss would still be 711 students over the six-year period. •The bulk of the county’s loss of student population is attributed to changing demographics and older (1990s) annexations, not recent annexations.

This report marks completion of the first phase of work by the Knox County group OK’d by the County Commission last year.

It got under way in October, its focus on utilization of current school facilities, city annexation plans, and attempt to predict where school enrollment will grow — or decline — in the years ahead.

Phase two of the study, if given the thumbs-up by commissioners after review of this report, would include evaluation of actual buildings.

In all, the County Commission agreed to spend up to $132,000 for both phases of the study.

It is called a “Partnership for Educational Facilities Assessment,” prepared as a joint effort of the Knox County Public Building Authority and the Knoxville Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Phase one of the study uses three different methods to describe how close a school is to its full capacity. The first is simply a national architectural standard based on number of square feet, with different grade levels assigned a certain number of square feet for each student. The second method places greater emphasis on how space in the facility is designed. The third method is based on function.

For the latter two methods, if a facility reaches or surpasses 85 percent usage of its design or function capacity, that’s a “red flag” that it is headed toward overcrowded conditions.

Less than 65 percent usage indicates the facility “is not being used for its best use.”

In January 2007, the commission voted in favor of the $50 million bond issue, at least in concept. The issue was championed by the late Commissioner Ralph Harr. That vote included no time frame for when the bonds would be issued.

The $50 million would be split among the county’s school system, Kingsport’s city school system, and Bristol Tennessee’s city school system. The amount each system would receive would be based on average daily attendance in each system. Tennessee law requires that the money be split because city residents also pay county property taxes — which would be used to pay back the $50 million.

The full report, as well as a Power Point presentation shown to county officials Monday, is available online at: www.knoxmpc.org/pefa/sullivan/index.htm.

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