Thursday, August 21, 1997
Suburbs building fast to keep up
with enrollment explosion

BY GINA GENTRY-FLETCHER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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New Lakota West High School.
(Gary Landers photo)
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An overwhelming increase in the number of school-age children has caused the biggest school building boom the Tristate has seen since afterWorld War II.

Construction projects worth more than $200 million are being completed as students prepare to return this month.

The enrollment increase in the Tristate was caused largely by an increase in births and suburban sprawl that began in the late 1980s, demographers and local school officials say. It mirrors a nationwide increase that demographers say is record-setting. Suburban schools are most affected because urban flight also is fueling their growth.

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In the Tristate, 18 suburban school districts have seen their enrollment grow by more than 20 percent in seven years. Two of them - Lakota Local and Mason City - have seen the number of students swell by more than 50 percent during that period. Mason has become the fastest growing school district in Ohio and the Tristate.

"The handwriting was on the wall," said Kevin Bright, Mason assistant superintendent. "Based on projections and the type of growth that we have seen historically, there was no reason to believe that growth was going to slow down. It hasn't. We're exploding."

Nationally, the boom in student enrollment is the biggest ever. An estimated 52.4 million are expected to fill U.S. classrooms this year, up from 51.7 million last year, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Enrollment will reach 54.6 million by 2006, its report said.

Locally, six new schools open this month and more construction is being launched for next year. And many older buildings have been expanded.

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New Lakota East High School.
(Gary Landers photo)
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Among the new buildings:

  • Two high schools in Lakota.

  • A high school and elementary school in Fairfield.

  • A high school in Mason.

  • A high school in Batavia.

Ground will be broken yet this year on five more schools: two in Kenton County, one in Mason, one in Forest Hills and one in the Oak Hills district.

Funding problems

About 190,000 additional teachers will be needed nationwide and 6,000 more schools built in the next 10 years to accommodate the so-called "baby boom echo" - children of baby boomers who are now in school.

School growth

Charts show how enrollment has changed in the past seven years in counties that make up the Cincinnati Metropolitan Area.

Southwestern Ohio

N.Ky.-Indiana

Property taxpayers in Ohio still bear the largest burden for supporting schools. Districts cannot get money for new buildings without voter approval.

Unlike Kentucky, which passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) in 1990, Ohio legislators have struggled unsuccessfully this summer with school funding reform. KERA provided for funding, technology, curriculum, teaching standards and resources.

Managing the cost of growth has been a problem for some districts such as Lebanon City Schools, where voters overwhelmingly rejected two bond issues for a high school in November and May.

The district's enrollment of 4,214 students has grown by 33.7 percent since 1989 and is expected to double in 10 years. In one recent month, more than 2,000 new home sites were approved in Lebanon. "We could have 10,000 new students move in - and if the taxpayers don't want to build anything new, we can't," said Larry Bone, school board member.

Development is catalyst

The enrollment increase in several suburban communities outpaces the national average.

These communities are affected by many of the same factors fueling growth nationwide - baby boomers who delayed having children, an increase in immigrants and more students staying in school instead of dropping out. The Tristate's suburbs also are coping with large-scale housing and business development and urban flight.

In some cases, growth seems to beget more growth.

For example, Homearama, the annual showcase of upscale homes, has been in Mason the last two years and returns in 1998.

Experts say it has fueled construction of even more homes in the Mason, Lakota, Kings and Lebanon districts.

Likewise, rapid development in Northern Kentucky has caused school crowding problems. Officials, grappling with how best to handle all aspects of area growth, have asked the region's lawmakers to lobby for additional school funding.

In Northern Kentucky, there has been a 13.7 percent increase in students entering schools in the last seven years.

Watching demographic shifts is the best way school districts have to prepare for growth, said Gerry Hammond, president of Steed Hammond Paul Inc., an architectural firm that helped Ohio officials compile the 1990 Public School Facility Survey.

"Schools have to guess the future in terms of enrollment projections, which can be extrapolated from the last five or six years by researching patterns of building and permits, sales and real estate activity," he said.

Students feel impact

The bell rings and the narrow hallway is instantly gridlocked with more than 1,000 students hurrying to their next class.

Stages, closets and the gym double as classrooms. Backpacks are banned to conserve space.

That's how Jill Moore, an incoming sophomore at Oak Hills High School, remembers her three years at Delhi Junior High.

"I was in an art class that had 33 people in it. People were work CP:Jill Moore

ing in the hallways - painting in the hallways," the 14-year-old said. "I was in a gym class that had four classes in it. There were a lot of classes where you couldn't get the attention you needed because there were just too many people."

All that will be remedied about the time she graduates when a multimillion-dollar expansion in the Oak Hills district is completed. "It will be so much better for everyone," she said. "I'm just glad someone else won't have to go through this."

Suburban growth affects school districts coping with other problems, however. For example, the loss of affluent residents to the suburbs makes passing a bond issue for school building repairs difficult.

Cincinnati Public Schools, growing by about 1 percent since 1989, is faced with fixing aging buildings.

Since November 1995, school officials have been able to pass three school levies, but none of that money was earmarked for building or replacement. In 1993, a study showed the district needed about $600 million in repairs. Soon after, when voters were asked to approve $348 million in repairs, they overwhelmingly rejected it by a margin of 20,000 votes.

School systems in Southeastern Indiana are experiencing sporadic enrollment increases, according to the Indiana Department of Education. Ohio County schools have experienced only a 2.9 percent increase in students since 1989, while Dearborn County shows a 10.4 percent growth rate.

The success of the riverboat gambling industry and a home-building frenzy may mark Southeastern Indiana communities as the next boom towns.

School officials are hoping the increases don't become a barrier to their basic purpose: to teach students.

Linda Fish-Oda, Sue Kiesewetter and Darrell Pressley contributed to this report.