Sullivan school enrollment projected to decline

Rick Wagner • Jan 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

True or false: City annexations into Sullivan County are to blame for the declining enrollment in county schools.

That’s mostly false, according to consultants the county hired to look at the county school system.

During a recent Sullivan County Board of Education retreat, officials from the Partnership for Education Facilities Assessment (PEFA) cited declining birth rates, increased death rates and more county students going to city schools.

Those are much heavier contributors to the fall in school enrollment, not annexation.

“The declining enrollments in the Sullivan County system, you can’t entirely attribute it to annexation,” said Terrence Gilhula, assistant manager of research for the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission.

The commission and the Knox County and Knoxville Public Building Authority constitute PEFA, which was commissioned to look at enrollment projections and school building conditions.

“Moderate” projections by PEFA indicate the current school population of 12,019 would drop to 11,011 in 10 years, compared to 9,759 in a low-growth situation and 12,006 in accelerated growth.

High schools would lose students in all three projections.

Gilhula said that since 1990, cities have annexed 16,600 acres — or about 26 square miles in the county. Of that, Kingsport accounted for 55 percent, Bristol 44 percent, and Johnson City 1 percent.

In the past four years, Gilhula said only 57 public school students were annexed by Kingsport and Bristol, with Johnson City annexing none.

Since 2002, he said that of 758 students lost, only 57 are attributable to annexation.

However, Gilhula said areas annexed in the 1990s now have 1,100 school-age children.

The school board is taking the study PEFA did of the school system and other information into consideration while reviewing scenarios to save more than $970,000 by closing three elementary schools, rezoning students and shifting the seventh grade to North High School, which already has eighth-graders.

Meanwhile, the city’s plans to annex 436 Sullivan County public school students in the Rock Springs community, where the city this fall plans to open John Adams Elementary School, will have an unknown impact on the county schools.

That’s because a county school board policy adopted in 2006 allows students in areas annexed since then to opt to remain in the county system instead of forcing them into the city system or having them participate in the county lottery for out-of-zone students at each school.

Gilhula said historical data indicates that when students and parents have a choice, about 97 percent of annexed elementary students go to city schools, dropping to 89 percent at the middle school level and 64 percent in high school.

As for future annexation plans, Dan Wells and other school board members expressed concern about past Kingsport plans to annex into the Cooks Valley and Fall Creek areas in the Central High School zone.

However, city planner Ken Weems told the board that aside from the Rock Springs plan, the city is annexing by request in the smart-growth area, although as pointed out by Director of Schools Jack Barnes the moratorium on annexing into the Colonial Heights area will expire in 2010.

Gilhula said that judging from past annexation, Bristol and Johnson City will make limited annexation that would affect the schools.

Since 2002, the system of about 12,000 students has lost about 800 students, and since 2000 the losses total 1,200, or about 1.2 percent a year.

Gilhula said that while about 300 Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City students attend county schools, about 600 Sullivan County non-city residents attend city schools, with another 200 out-of-county students.

The total countywide population of about 144,400 in 1980 fell to 143,900 in 1990 and rose to 153,000 in 2000, reaching 153,200 in 2006. Aside from decreased birth rates and increased death rates, Gilhula said the county has picked up a net in-migration of 319 since 2000.

And with a median age of 32 in 1980 growing to 42 in 2005, folks aren’t having as many children.

New housing units are down to about 728 a year in the 2000s. Accounting for the 6 percent of students in private or home schools, a new single-family detached homes development of 100 is expected to generate only 39 public school students, or .407 students per home minus the 6 percent non-public school students.

For a complete look at the PEFA studies on Sullivan County schools go to www.knoxmpc.org and click on the plans and studies section.

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