Before Wake County asks taxpayers to pay for more buildings, the school system needs to ensure its population estimates are accurate.
In October 2013, Wake County voters approved an $810 million bond referendum to finance new schools and repairs. Now, little over a year later, community leaders are saying that Wake County needs even more money to build schools for a growing school-age population.
A November 2014 issue of In Context, the monthly publication of the Wake Education Partnership, put the concern front and center in a special edition of its monthly newsletter, Here We Grow Again. The document said:
Wake County is growing faster than we can build schools. … And Wake is expected to keep growing. The projections for the next six years show Wake growing an average of more than 4,200 students per year. That’s four large elementary schools. And these projections have already collected some dust. They were built on data available in February 2013 when the Board of Commissioners were hammering out details for a 2013 bond . . .
More recent predictions suggest that these numbers may be on the low end. We could have more than 161,421 students at the start of the 2015-16 school year. Yes. You did your math right. That’s an extra 2,076 students above the average 4,200 per year.
Later on in the same document, WEP suggests that by the 2020-2021 school year, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) will have “181,500+” students.
These figures and their timing have caught many Wake County residents by surprise. Supporters of the bond say the money is needed because the 2013 bond was pared back and the county continues to grow. But before taxpayers are asked to reach into their wallets yet again, the school system must ensure its estimates are right.
For there is no shortage of differing estimates about student enrollment growth in Wake County. A review of WCPSS population estimates over the years suggests the County has had a habit of making aggressive population estimates, only to have to revise the estimates downward after the painful realities of business cycles become evident. (See WCPSS Adopted Budget 2007-08, page 7 and WCPSS Adopted Budget 2011-12, page 12.)
We compiled recent student enrollment estimates for Wake County (see the first column of figures in the table below). The estimates, listed in the WEP article, are from a May 16, 2013 Wake County Board of Education Meeting presentation. They are based on 2012-13 figures.
|WCPSS Estimated Student Population By YearThree Estimates|
|Year||WCPSS May 2013
|DPI School Construction (Estimate)2013||DPI 5 Year
Earlier this year the School Construction Office, a division within the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, published student enrollment estimates for all LEAs, for the years 2014 to 2023 (See the second column of figures above). As you can see early on in this time span, the estimates were quite similar. However, by the middle of the period, the DPI and WEP estimates begin to diverge. By 2020-21 there is a disparity of 15,684 students, with the WEP estimate higher.
Just recently, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released five-year estimates for student population by LEA for the years 2014-15 through 2018-19. Those figures are listed in the right column of the table above. Generally speaking, when these figures are compared with the other two estimates, the five-year estimates take a middle ground.
However, when you compare the differences between the WEP and DPI five-year estimates, two facts become apparent. First, the differences between the two estimates grow with time. For the first year, the five-year DPI estimate was actually 274 students higher than the WEP figure. But with each successive year the difference grows. So much so that the five-year DPI estimate for 2018-19 came in more than 5,334 students less than the WEP estimate. Second, what also became clear was that, barring dramatic demographic changes, student population estimates would not trend anywhere near the WEP estimate for the 2020-2021 school year of 181,522 students.
Student enrollment estimates are a product of assumptions and methodologies that take years to perfect. Recent DPI figures challenge the WEP estimates, which should give policymakers and taxpayers pause.
Predicting the number of schools for a changing population is a difficult task. We acknowledge Wake County is a growing county and it’s important that the county meet those needs. It’s equally important, however, that the county accurately predict its future needs. Overestimation can cost the county millions of dollars and fracture the trust between citizens and government. WCPSS student enrollment estimates need to be thoroughly reviewed. Only then can we ensure the numbers are accurate and reliable; only then can parents, students and taxpayers be satisfied that the educational needs of a growing student population will be met in an efficient manner.