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The sum of all fears

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Fran Bentley's sixth-grade class at Carroll Oakland / Dallua Whitfield photo

WCSB faces booming population growth
West Wilson and Mt. Juliet middle schools are both "busting at the seams," according to school administrators and board members. MJMS has 1,600 students enrolled and WWMS isn't far behind, with about 1,200.

The administrators and board members agree that Wilson County's next school should be a middle school to relieve the overcrowding at West Wilson and Mt. Juliet. However, there isn't as much agreement about where the new school should be located.

Then again, one new school isn't likely to be enough in the not-too-distant future.
Currently, 17,117 children are enrolled in Wilson County Schools, according to Director of Schools Donna Wright, up from 16,700 in August.

But projections made by city and county planners indicate the 400-pupil increase in less than three months is just the beginning.

Over 100,000 new faces
Wilson County is growing rapidly, according to County Planner Tom Brashear. Two separate studies - one by the University of Tennessee and one by Woods and Poole Economics, Inc. - predict that the county will experience six-figure growth in the next two dozen years, Brashear said.

Population projections by the UT's State Data Center estimate that the county may grow to 219,467 residents by 2040, up more than 105,000 from its 2010 total of 113,993. Woods and Poole predict an even greater increase to 231,900 residents in the county by 2040.

Brashear's tables from those studies also indicate that 57,260 of those future Wilson County residents, including the children of the people already here, will be 19 or under. Even by deducting for kids under 5 years old, that still means about 45,000 school-age children in the next generation.

In Mt. Juliet alone there are 4,356 single-family homes approved but not yet built, and 1,862 more that have been proposed, but not yet approved, according to Mt. Juliet Planner Bo Logan. When 897 already-approved apartments that allow children are added to that total, the number in Mt. Juliet alone reaches a staggering 7,115 new residential units over the next two or three years.

All of them will house families that may include children, Logan noted, adding that currently, Mt. Juliet neighborhoods where children are allowed average a little more than one child per household, so the 7,000 new homes probably will house 8,000 to 10,000 children.

Twice as many schools?
All of this growth in the next 25 years will mean at least double the number of schools will be needed and, in many cases, so will bigger schools.

Assistant Director of Schools Mickey Hall said his office is gathering data from Brashear, Logan, Lebanon Planner Tom Corder and school statistics to provide a complete picture for the school board to use when it holds work sessions planned for December and January to decide what steps to take next.

"Our current plans call for a high school, a middle school and an elementary on North 109," Hall said. "That would help the three biggest high schools and the middle schools, too."

His suggestion to the board will be to put all three levels on a single campus. "That way they can share the infrastructure," he added. "Both Sumner and Rutherford counties are already doing that."

Hall also foresees another middle school and possibly a fifth high school in the Mt. Juliet-Gladeville area, he said.

Elsewhere in the county, "we're renovating Carroll-Oakland," Hall noted. "We're adding 57,000 square feet, renovating the gym and cafeteria, and adding more parking. We hope to eliminate the 14 portable classrooms. That should be complete by July 2015."

He pointed out that the new Watertown High School may encourage growth in that area, too. "It probably will," he said. "There's lots of land in that area."

Where to put them?
Wright agrees with Hall that new schools encourage growth. For that reason, she said, she hopes the next middle school will be "along the southeast corridor," or southeast of Mt. Juliet, and that it will draw growth away from the increasingly congested neighborhoods and schools to the west of that area. Specifically, she'd like to locate the new school south of I-40 and possibly east of Gladeville.

Wright also favors a combined high school and middle school campus. But first, she said, she wants to use the available data and some special computer programs that the school system has obtained to create a visual image of the county population density for the board to study.

At that point, Hall expects the board to take a comprehensive look at the school growth plans. "We haven't reviewed that plan in seven years," he said. "The board can look at this and decide whether to keep moving on the 109 plans, or if plans need to change."

School Board Chair Larry Tomlinson agrees the most urgent problem is the crowding at the two West Wilson middle schools.

"The largest need is a middle school," Tomlinson said. "Both West Wilson Middle and Mt. Juliet Middle are overpopulated, and with the number of houses being built in south Mt. Juliet, we may need another elementary and high school near South 109, too."

Single-campus concept
He, too, thinks using one campus to serve both a high school and a middle school is a good idea. "I don't see any problem with that because the buildings are separate," he said. "The big plus is, they can share playing fields."

Tomlinson also pointed out that three of Wilson County's high schools are in the "Big 32" - the 32 largest high schools in the state. Lebanon, Wilson Central and Mt. Juliet each have enrollments between 1,800 and 2,000, and Watertown is the only exception.

Meanwhile, board member and former board chair Don Weathers, who represents part of Mt. Juliet on the board, pointed out that Mt. Juliet is growing much faster than was predicted by either the Woods and Poole population projection or the University of Tennessee predictions.

The current estimated population of Mt. Juliet is close to the number predicted for the city's 2030 population.
Proposing a total of six new schools, Weathers said he thinks the county should be looking for land along South 109, near Mt. Juliet, to build both a middle school and a high school to deal with this growth; a three-level campus farther north, near Laguardo; and a middle school near Gladeville.

Quick start urged
He also said that the time to start is now. "It takes 12 to 36 months before you can start building," he said. "You have to find the property, get the funding, the engineering and the plans first, and then you can have weather delays."

The three-level campus Weathers would support "somewhere in the Laguardo area or maybe a little south" would have a high school, middle school, and elementary, he said. "And we need a middle school near Gladeville," he added. "Our population should double in the next 20 years."

Both Gladeville and Southside elementaries are K-8 schools, and a new middle school near Gladeville could relieve crowding problems at both those schools by removing their older grades and leaving room for their younger pupils.

Lebanon's more moderate growth may be a blessing in disguise, since it doesn't seem to be having such serious issues with overcrowding in its schools as the county is having. "We've had an uptick in home construction in the last two years, but not so dramatic," Corder said.

Lebanon's growth controlled
The Lebanon City Council and the Planning Commission also are inclined to turn down development they don't think would benefit the community, Corder pointed out. The most recent case was the 55-unit multi-family development proposed for 5½ acres on East Spring Street, which was turned down after residents of the neighborhood protested the density involved.

Furthermore, Lebanon has its own K-8 schools, and Corder also said he thinks the Lebanon Special School District is being able to keep up with the growth within its district.

But slow or rapid, the growth is coming, and new schools seem to be in the crystal ball for Wilson County school administrators and board members - a crystal ball into which they're beginning to take a long, hard look. Still another question is how to find funding for all this new construction, but the first step is to determine what's needed - and where to put it.

Connie Esh may be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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