Special Report
School & District Management

School Planners Face Daunting Task in Matching Facilities, Enrollment

Predicting and preparing for growth plays a key role in district success
By Denisa R. Superville — November 28, 2017 10 min read
Lockers are already installed at Memorial High School in Frisco, Texas, due to be finished by fall of 2018. The building is part of an effort by the once-tiny community to keep up with explosive enrollment growth.
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Frisco, Texas, was a farming and ranching outpost about 30 miles from Dallas, with one traffic signal and 800 schoolchildren, when Rick Reedy got a job there in 1976 as a high school math teacher and coach.

By the time he retired in 2013, having risen to become superintendent, the bedroom community where the majority of residents once grew wheat and corn, raised cattle or commuted to work in the city, had become a thriving exurb of about 129,000 residents, with a bustling multimillion-dollar shopping mall, office parks, and a Major League Soccer team.

A commercial and residential boom beginning in the early 1990s brought thousands of new families to Frisco, swelling the school district’s enrollment from just under 5,000 in 1999 to an estimated 58,000 today.

“It was just fast and furious,” said Richard Wilkinson, who was the deputy superintendent for business services during the bulk of Reedy’s tenure and during a time when the district was opening, on average, about three buildings a year. The district now has 68 schools, with four more set to open next year.

While U.S. public schools added more than 10 million K-12 students between the 1987-88 and 2014-15 school years, districts such as Frisco; Loudoun County, Va.; Forsyth County, Ga.; and Plainfield, Ill., more than quadrupled their enrollments during that time. Those districts built schools at a frenetic pace to keep up.

Frisco’s school system grew more than 3,800 percent between the 1987-88 and the 2014-15 school years—the largest percentage growth among districts with 20,000 students in the 2014-15 school year. And from the 2005-06 and 2010-11 school years, the district welcomed more than 3,000 students annually, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal enrollment data.

It’s not the only district to deal with exponential increases in enrollment. The Plainfield school district, about 40 miles from Chicago, grew from approximately 3,500 students in five schools in 1990 to 28,000 students in 30 buildings by 2017. (Enrollment grew to just shy of 30,000 in the 2009-10 school year, but the district has since lost some students.)

“I used to tell people, ‘Don’t stand by the side of the road because they’d build something around you,’” Tom Hernandez, the Plainfield spokesman, recalled.

How did school districts manage that growth while still keeping on top of everything else they had to do? Smart planning, officials said.

Large- and medium-sized districts like Montgomery County, Md.; Loudoun County, Va.; and Volusia County, Fla., have entire departments that oversee school planning and construction. Some have certified planners, demographers, and Geographic Information Systems specialists to help estimate future student enrollment, pinpoint areas most likely to be affected by demographic change, and propose sites for new schools or expansion.

Smaller districts like Frisco have to hire outside planners to help them through the process.

Planning Challenges

Reedy identified three distinct growth periods in the Frisco school district: slow growth of about 1 to 3 percent a year from when he arrived in 1976 to 1992; gradual growth of 4 to 10 percent from 1992 to 1997; and explosive growth above 10 percent from 1997 through today.

Frisco was not exactly blindsided by the growth. A former demographer had predicted that the district’s enrollment would swell and school officials had already purchased land and planned new buildings for new students. And long before the growth crept up on them the town had convened a committee to create a vision for the future Frisco school district that included the size of the schools and feeder patterns.

The city’s proximity to Dallas and its high-quality schools had always been a draw, but the expansion of the Dallas North Tollway into Frisco made it easier for residents to commute to and from work, and the addition of office parks in Frisco further cut commuting time.

But the pace surprised officials. By the mid-1990s, engineers were building roads and putting down sewer lines where cattle once roamed. Farms were being chopped up into subdivisions. And developers were filing master plans with the city of Frisco, along with the three other municipalities that make up the Frisco school district—McKinney, Plano, and Little Elm—signaling their intention to build homes.

School planners say having a good relationship with municipal officials is essential to keeping track of the number and types of residential units that developers plan to build. This knowledge helps districts estimate the number of students that are likely to live in the housing units over time, how many school buildings might be necessary to educate them, and where in the municipality schools may need to be added or expanded.

Charting the Boom

Among the major commercial and residential developments driving Frisco’s growth:

  • 1996: Starwood, a 550-acre residential development with 1,200 homes, and one of the first sub-divisions to develop in Frisco.
  • 1998: The Trails of West Frisco, a 538-acre residential development, begins construction. It now includes 1,675 homes.
  • 1998: Hall Park opens. The office complex will later grow from one building into a 162-acre campus with more than 2.5 million square feet of office space.
  • 2000: Stonebriar Centre, a shopping mall anchored by national chains such as Macy’s and Nordstrom, opens.
  • 2000: Construction begins on Heritage Green. The development includes 313 homes, adding 260 students to the school system.
  • 2001: Construction begins on The Fairways, a residential development with nearly 600 single-family homes, adding about 620 students.
  • 2001: Construction begins on Hunters Creek , a 275-acre residential development with 864 homes adding 920 students.
  • 2004: The Dallas North Tollway is extended to Frisco, making it easier to commute between Dallas and Frisco.
  • 2004: Construction begins on The Heights at Westridge in nearby McKinney. The development has 1,322 housing lots, adding about 1,250 students.

Sources: City of Frisco; Dallas Morning News; Population and Survey Analysts; Education Week

In addition, home prices also can give districts a clue about how many students to expect: Homes in the lower price range are more likely to attract families with younger children than homes in the mid-price range, said Saralee Morrissey, the planning director for the Volusia County school district in Daytona Beach, Fla.

In places like Florida, planners also have to factor in charter schools and other school choice options. Districts are not always aware of when a charter school may open or close, and that’s something many of them did not have to consider 25 years ago, Morrissey said.

When Frisco hired Population and Survey Analysts, a demography and planning firm based in College Station, Texas, property was changing hands at such a rapid clip that employees literally had to assess every tract to ascertain ownership and most recent sales, said Kris Pool, the chief data analyst at the firm, who has worked with the school district since 1999.

They met with city officials and developers to get more details on their plans. But they didn’t just take the developers’ word. They also looked at whether the land was ready for development: Did the area already have roads, sewer lines, and other infrastructure?

They coded the location of current district students and examined enrollment trends in the existing subdivisions, Pool said. They also looked at birth rates and adjusted them five years into the future to determine enrollment projections for kindergarten students.

Planners also generally take into account those who move into the area, housing turnover, along with the types of businesses that are located in and near the school district.

“It’s not [an exact science],” Pool said. “But there is a lot of science that goes into it.”

The 1999 report from PASA projected that Frisco’s enrollment would nearly triple to 15,955 by 2004. Another report in 2001 forecast the need for 56 schools in 10 years.

Wilkinson said the district used the projections to plan how many schools to build, how the buildings would be rolled out, and staffing, and as the basis for bond programs—to finance construction. The annual revisions were used to set attendance zones, which Frisco reconfigured annually in the high growth years, often because of space issues in existing buildings.

Team Approach

The core district team also worked in concert with the deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction and human resources—more students meant more buildings, which translated into a need for additional teachers and staff. Curriculum staff also provided input on the types of learning spaces students needed.

Frisco also found an ally in City Manager George Purefoy, one of the engineers of Frisco’s economic boom. District officials say he was instrumental in keeping them apprised of development plans and ensuring that developers kept the district and the impact on schools in mind as they proposed new projects.

Since 1993, Frisco residents have approved more than $2 billion in bonds to pay for new buildings, land purchases, and expansion and renovations, though the approval rates for those measures have dropped over time. In the early years, it was relatively easy to get residents on board to approve spending for new lots and buildings.

“When you are growing by 15 to 20 percent and you are adding thousands of students per year, it’s easy for the community to say, ‘Wow, they need another school—or 15 more schools—because of the level of growth,’ ” said Todd Fouche, the deputy superintendent for business services, who replaced Wilkinson.

Additionally, because assessed property values were increasing faster than the rate of student growth, the tax impact remained relatively low, Wilkinson said.

Frisco also has a citizen bond committee made up of about two dozen residents who provide input on what to build and where to build. That level of community involvement also built support for large bond projects, officials said.

While the funds from earlier bonds went primarily toward new schools, a larger share of future programs would likely go toward renovating and repairing existing buildings and fewer new constructions. That will probably make those bond programs a tougher sell, he said.

Given projections that enrollment could reach 73,000 in the next decade—and that more than 55,000 new units of housing are expected to be built in that same period—the district will likely need more new schools, said Pool, the consultant who has worked with the district.

Pressure on Staff, Community

One of the most challenging aspects of the rapid growth was the demand on the relatively small staff.

“It was almost like as soon as you get through with a bond program you are planning the next one,” Wilkinson said.

Despite the building boom, the district couldn’t build schools fast enough, and a small number of students were in temporary trailers.

Annual rezoning, when students are moved from one school to another because of capacity issues or changes in attendance zones, was—and continues to be—a perennial sore spot for districts, parents, students.

“It’s painful to be separated from friends that you have made, coaches, and counselors, and teachers that you care greatly about, and all of a sudden, you are starting this brave new world in another high school,” said Reedy, who regrets the district was never able to make the process more palatable to parents.

Last year, voters rejected a measure that would have allowed the district to increase the property tax rate for its maintenance and operations budget by 13 cents for every $100 of assessed valuation. The money would have gone toward hiring staff for four schools that were slated to open this fall. The district has pushed off the schools’ openings to 2018.

Coming up with funds for new buildings while keeping up existing schools can be a challenge virtually anywhere.

In Montgomery County, Md., which added 24,000 students in the last decade, bringing the enrollment to 162,000, the superintendent recently proposed a $1.8 billion capital improvement plan for new schools and upgrades.

“There is not an unending amount of money to try to address all of those needs,” said Adrienne Karamihas, the acting director of capital planning in the Montgomery County district, which is part of suburban Washington, D.C.

When new developments crop up, districts also have to worry about equity: how to ensure that the newest schools, with state-of-the-art facilities, are not concentrated in the newer parts of town.

In Frisco, officials often ask whether features planned for new schools would benefit all students. If so, the district makes an effort to add the same or similar features to other buildings through renovations and upgrades. Newer high schools, for example, have 600-seat auditoriums, so the district went back to Frisco High School, built in 1996, and added a 600-seat auditorium, Fouche said.

The district also built a career and technical education center to ensure that all high school students have access to state-of-the-art technology regardless of where they took most of their classes.

Pat Guseman, PASA’s president and chief demographer, and Pool gave Frisco officials high marks for the way they handled the growth.

“It required the superintendent and the assistant superintendent to be very involved,” Pool said. “They all learned to like numbers—even if they didn’t. I see other districts that struggle much more than they did, with a lower [rate of] growth.”

City Manager Purefoy said it was about having the right people, in the right place, at the right time—from excellent demographers to a school board that was supportive of Frisco’s commitment to small schools.

“I think it’s also a prime example of a city and a school district working together and how that helps all the citizens,” he said. “If you can keep the politics out of it … it helps everybody.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2017 edition of Education Week as On the Hot Seat: School Planners’ Challenging Task


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