BLOUNTVILLE — The number of students enrolled in Sullivan County’s school system has declined steadily in recent years, and that trend is projected to continue over the next decade, county officials were told Thursday.
The first phase of an analysis of long-term school needs for Sullivan County is expected to be completed within the next few weeks. What was described as a draft of the report was shown to county officials Thursday.
A final report will be revealed to the Sullivan County Commission and the Sullivan County Board of Education at a special joint meeting. That’s been tentatively scheduled for 10 a.m. April 7.
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.”
According to information from the draft report:
• Total enrollment in the county’s school system stands at 12,019 — down roughly 800 students since 2002.
• For the 2017/2018 school year, enrollment is project to be somewhere between 9,729 (a decrease of 2,260 students) and 12,006 (a decrease of only 13 students). Those are the “low” and “high” projections from the study. The “moderate” projection, deemed “most likely” by those producing the study, is for an enrollment of 11,011 that year (a decrease of 1,008 students).
• If grouped as a whole, the system’s facilities appear to be running nearly full, based on the square footage method. But on a design standard, all the facilities combined have space for 21,155 students, resulting in a usage of 56.8 percent. When function criteria is used to calculate use, all the facilities combined come in at 72 percent usage.
• Eleven of the county’s elementary schools “red flagged” under function guidelines, but an expected drop in elementary enrollment should change some of those numbers.
• Five of the county’s seven middle schools are operating at or below capacity.
• At the low end of the scale, Sullivan Middle School is at 39.4 usage under function capacity. Based on floor space alone, the school’s current enrollment of 186 falls well below the 375-student capacity it would be allotted based on square feet. Looking at design as the basis for capacity, the school could seat up to 685 students, giving it a current usage rate of 27.2 percent.
• At the opposite end of the spectrum for county middle schools, Colonial Heights Middle School garners a “red flag” usage level of 97.2 percent of its function capacity. Based on floor space alone, the school’s current enrollment of 574 puts it well above the 318-student capacity it would be allotted based on square feet (giving it a 180.2 percent usage score).
• Of the county’s four high schools, Sullivan North in Kingsport is the only one to rank below 65 percent usage — no matter which method was used. The school’s square footage gives it space for 1,361 students. Current enrollment is 866, giving North a 63.7 usage rate by that method. Using the design criteria expands North’s estimated capacity to 2,020 students, giving the school a 42.9 percent usage rate. With function as the driving factor, North’s capacity is estimated at 1,641 — a 52.8 percent usage rate.
The Sullivan County Commission voted in July 2007 to contract with the Knox County Public Building Authority (KPBA) for the school study. It could ultimately provide a strategy for spending a $50 million bond issuance supported by a majority of county commissioners about a year ago.
The first phase, which got under way in October, focuses on utilization of current school facilities, city annexation plans, and attempt to predict where school enrollment will grow — or decline — in the years ahead.
It is not expected to include any recommendations, such as whether or not any schools should be closed or consolidated or new schools built.
Phase two of the study would include evaluation of actual buildings.
Last January, 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 KPBA and Knox County/Knoxville Metropolitan Planning Commission (KMPC) work in tandem to produce “Partnership for Educational Facilities Assessments.”
Preliminary portions of the Sullivan County study, made public last month, indicated city annexations are not to blame for the county school system’s declining student population:
• “Since 2002, 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 decline is attributed to changing demographics in Sullivan County and older (1990s) annexations, not recent annexations. Areas annexed in the 1990s still have many school-age children. However, those children are in areas no longer part of the Sullivan County system. The remainder of the Sullivan County service area is comprised of families with fewer or declining numbers of school children, while the growth areas are now parts of Bristol and Kingsport.”
• There are currently about 1,200 students, total, in Kingsport and Bristol city school systems (845 and 347, respectively), with home addresses annexed by the cities between 1990 and 2007. But only 63 of those are from annexations that happened in the last eight years (four in Kingsport and 59 in Bristol).
• KMPC staff said 2000 marked a downturn in annexations by both cities, and in the years since both have drastically slowed the amount of residentially zoned land being annexed.
• The three fastest-growing areas of Sullivan County outside city boundaries are in county school zones for Bluff City, Indian Springs and Mary Hughes elementary schools.