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Board talks growth plans

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The Wilson County School Board "went to school" itself at a recent retreat, learning about the county and school district's dramatic growth potential.

At the retreat, held in Smithville Saturday, Jason Morris with Kaatz, Binkley, Jones, Morris Architects of Mt. Juliet provided the board with "a 360-degree view of what we are facing and what we know we would be facing in the future," said Director of Schools Dr. Donna Wright.

What's more, the board's learning session may translate into almost-immediate action targeted at addressing the district's urgent growth issues.

The board has scheduled another work session for 4 p.m. Monday, April 6, before its regular meeting at 6 p.m., to continue the discussion about growth.

Then at the regular meeting, the board may approve a prioritized capital outlay plan to present to the Wilson County Commission, according to Amelia Morrison Hipps, the school district's information officer.

'More than urgency'
"It's more than urgency right now," Wright told the board at its recent retreat. "There are things that we know right now that are really going to shape the work we're going to be looking at today."

As The Wilson Post has reported in a series of stories over the past few months, Wilson County currently has two of the largest middle schools in Tennessee, and "they're not going to get smaller," Wright said, referring to Mt. Juliet and West Wilson middle schools.

Additionally, the school system has grown by more than 2,000 students in the last 4-and-a-half years, she noted.

"Since August, we've grown by 800 students," Wright added. "Since Jan. 5, we've grown by 34 students at Watertown High School, with similar numbers at the elementary and middle school."

'Look where the need is'
When planning for growth, the schools director commented to the board, "we need to start looking at not where we would like the buildings to be, but at where those facilities need to be. When you see the visuals, I'm thinking your mind is going to shift as to where we need to start preparing."

"We went all the way back to the 1970s," Morris explained, pointing to a chart that showed the county's 1978 enrollment total - 8,652.

By 1990, enrollment had grown by 1,499 students to 10,151. Fast forward another 10 years - enrollment was 12,653 (2,502 more). By 2010, enrollment had grown by another 2,323 students to 14,976.

However, in the past four years alone, enrollment has grown more than in any other period by 2,899 students for a total of 17,075.

Morris noted that by projecting enrollment to 2024 using the 37-year trend line, the school district can expect 20,000 students - an increase of about 3,000 students.

But "when you go to a 13-year trend, it gets you up to 21,500 by 2024. That does not include additional developments," Morris said.

That would mean an increase of about 4,500 students in the next nine years - and even that estimate could be conservative.

Grade schools are brimming
Three of the 12 elementary schools in the county system are currently over their classroom capacity, according to figures Morris shared. Those schools are Elzie D. Patton, Gladeville and Stoner Creek.

Five elementary schools - Lakeview, Southside, Tuckers Crossroads, W. A. Wright and West Elementary - are almost at capacity this year. Tuckers Crossroads had been over its capacity until this year, and Wright attributed the drop to the "aging out" of students in its school zone.

However, she noted there are several developments with playsets underway in the Tuckers school zone, which is an indicator of future students.

Watertown Elementary had been nudging its capacity until this year when the new Watertown High School opened, allowing the old high school to become the new Watertown Middle School for grades six through eight. This gave Watertown some breathing room, Morris said.

Middle schools in same boat
At the middle schools, Mt. Juliet has exceeded its capacity for the past three years.

"West Wilson Middle School - with the addition that opened up - now has a little bit of room, but not much," Morris said.

Zone 3 Board Member Don Weathers asked if the feeder elementary schools will continue "to bump this trend upward" for the middle schools in Mt. Juliet.

"Yes, sir. We're tracking that as well," replied Wright. "When we look at additional feeders, there's concern that those numbers will spike those numbers as well."

Board Chair Larry Tomlinson of Zone 5 asked which elementary schools feed West Wilson Middle.

Deputy Schools Director Mickey Hall said they are Stoner Creek, Gladeville, Rutland and West elementary schools. He added that Elzie D. Patton, Mt. Juliet, W. A. Wright and Lakeview elementary schools feed Mt. Juliet Middle School.

Teachers 'floating' at MJHS
All three of the older high schools are at, or near, capacity as well.

"Mt. Juliet High School is at capacity. They have 18 to 22 floating teachers," Hall said.

Wright explained that floating teachers move from classroom to classroom. "So it's really maximizing the use of your building, but even with that, that's a large number of teachers who are having to float," she said. "There are a lot of pluses to that, but it's also hard on the teachers."

Lebanon High, which Wright said had the largest growth this year of the four high schools at mid-year, is creeping close to its capacity.

Wilson Central High, which until this year had growth room, also came close to its capacity this year.

'Explosive' growth projected
Morris then moved on to address the anticipated growth of Wilson County and the anticipated impact on the school system.

He noted that the numbers for 2014 are only through Sept. 9, which means some of the more recently approved planned developments are not included. He added that the numbers include both single-dwelling homes and individual apartment units.

In Lebanon, The Village at Callis Crossing with 544 units and The Villages of Hunter Point with 594 total 1,138 new housing units on the way.

Weathers noted that students in the Callis Crossing development will attend Wilson Central and West Wilson Middle. Morris added that those in The Villages at Hunter Point are zoned for the Lebanon Special School District for grades pre-kindergarten through eight, which feeds into Lebanon High School.

In Mt. Juliet, more than 3,000 housing units are being developed. Two of the biggest are Nichols Vale with 354 units, right across the street from W. A. Wright Elementary. The other is Stone Farms, right next to Mt. Juliet High School, with 590 units. Totaling over 1,000 housing units, both developments are zoned for Elzie Patton Elementary.

In total, Morris said there are almost 6,000 dwellings and townhomes approved, with more than 5,000 sitting south of I-40, and 2,500 of those near the Beckwith Road interchange.

'The next step'
"What we want to see as an exit piece is to create a prioritized list of what we see as far as facilities in one, three and five years," Wright said at the conclusion of Morris' presentation.

"To set the stage, if we were to even start talking a middle school (and/or) elementary school, we wouldn't even have it ready to fill for at least three years out," Wright said. "We need to start looking at land inventories and purchase land. If we were to open a high school today, I could fill it right now with 1,500 students, pulling 500 off of the big three.

"That's the urgency as to why our task is so important today."

Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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