Tuesday, February 09, 1999

Little Miami schools must beg, borrow space

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MORROW — Unprecedented growth in southern Warren County may mean churches, storefronts or even a VFW hall could be converted into elementary school classrooms for some Little Miami kids this fall.

        As home builders transform farmland in Hamilton, Salem and Harlan townships into sprawling subdivisions, Little Miami administrators fear the housing boom may cause a classroom crunch.

        “If the developers get busy and sell a lot of homes ... that could mean 300 kids walking through here in August,” said Superintendent Michael Virelli. “We're really at the mercy of how fast developers sell lots and builders build those homes.”

        Little Miami is facing the explosive housing buildup that Lakota, Mason and Boone County schools have seen for the past 10 years. So serious is the problem that Warren County commissioners are to meet with Little Miami leaders today.

        Mr. Virelli expects between 75 and 90 new students next fall. Last fall, the district's enrollment grew by 71 students, from 2,467 to 2,538.

        Officials don't know how many students to expect next fall, but the district has grown by about 10 percent over the past five years.

        What's worrying administrators: 27 subdivisions have been approved for development in the district. If they all come on line, that would be 5,892 new homes.

        Bracing for the growth, administrators are looking at sites, including the VFW Post 8202 in Morrow, to house up to five classrooms next fall, likely for elementary school students.

        Another option the board of education is likely to consider is portable classrooms, or trailers, Mr. Virelli said.

        He expects to make a recommendation in late spring or early summer.

        It's expected any relocated classrooms would be a one-year problem. That's because a larger high school, now under construction, is expected to ease district crowding. It is to open in fall 2000.

        A recent study projected the southern Warren County district could almost double in the next 10 years, he said.

        Educators make projections about district enrollment, but they're not entirely scientific. That means officials won't know enrollment numbers for sure until students are signed up in late summer.

        “Our whole goal is to hold our breath and hope growth will subside long enough for the building to open up in 2000,” said Board of Education President Debbie Holliday.

        The board is looking for classroom space “so that we're not panicked if all of a sudden 400 kids move into the district,” Mrs. Holliday said. “We're just keeping a real good handle on where we're at, where we're growing.”

Tracking the trends
        Administrators are communicating regularly with county planning officials, township trustees, developers and builders to try to anticipate enrollment trends, Mr. Virelli said.

        “You look at the largest developers in the community ... in the school district. We drive by them all the time (and) see what's been completed.”

        Little Miami's problem is not new in the Tristate. An overwhelming increase in the number of school-age children has caused the biggest school building boom the Tristate has seen since World War II, say school administrators in Southwestern Ohio, Northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana.

        More than $200 million has been spent on construction projects the past two years to provide more classroom space.

        The enrollment increase was caused largely by an increase in births and suburban sprawl that surged 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 fuels their growth.

        Other area districts, such as Lebanon City Schools, also have felt the space squeeze. In 1997, Lebanon purchased the former Lebanon Church of the Nazarene building next to Holbrook Elementary School to hold kindergarten classes and administrative offices.

        Now all kindergarten classes are held either at the old church, now called the Holbrook Annex, or at Holbrook Elementary.

        “We are out of space,” said District Spokeswoman Carole Dorn.

        In Warren County, Aleta Cook remembers when teachers each had a classroom and class sizes were much smaller.

        Mrs. Cook, a 1974 Little Miami graduate whose daughter attends the high school, drives around parts of the district now and “it's just houses everywhere ... And you know they're all going to have kids and it doesn't stop.”

ABCs in VFW?
        If Miami settles on the VFW hall, parents don't have to worry about their children being exposed to a bar, said Bob Landacre, a trustee for post. “We're one of the two posts in Ohio that doesn't have a bar.”

        The hall houses bingo on Thursday nights and is rented out on weekends, he said.

        “I can understand what the problem is,” Mr. Landacre said. “They just don't have room for all the kids next year.”

        The district is trying to “find a way out of the overcrowding” until the new high school is built, said Bev Massey, whose son is a sixth-grader at Maineville Elementary School.

        “I don't know ... they need to do something,” said Mrs. Massey, also the president of the school's Parent Teacher Organization.

        A new 130,000-square-foot high school is to accommodate 800 students and an addition for another 800 if necessary.

        Maineville Elementary already is at capacity. Principal Melody Goodwin has seen the school's enrollment increase from 382 to about 560 in six years.

        This has created such a space crunch that a copy machine is now kept in a boiler room. Teachers no longer have a workroom, and they sometimes use Mrs. Goodwin's office.

        If the district is forced to rent space for classrooms, it will be more difficult to coordinate school activities, Mrs. Goodwin said.

        “I think as a short-term solution, it's something that's workable,” she said. “It's certainly not something you want to do for a long period of time.”


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