White Rock Elementary expansion meeting. Photo by Carol Toler.

White Rock Elementary expansion meeting. Photo by Carol Toler.

Colin Hildinger is no demographer, but he’s pieced together enrollment information about White Rock Elementary, and his message to fellow parents is alarming. At the current rate, the school will need to add at least 4 new classrooms by 2017 and at least 2 more the next year. Growth at WRE has rapidly outpaced projections by RISD’s official demographer, Templeton, and – without action by the district -more students will be turned away.

Hildinger recently brought attention to the problem via a social media campaign: despite building 6 new classrooms in 2014, WRE enrollment is already maxed out. Though Templeton projected students this year of 824, 922 enrolled. Forty-four students were overflowed to other schools – some outside of Lake Highlands – and the kids keep coming. Parents who’ve just moved into the area, whose kids are not yet 5 years old, are sharing worries on Facebook and HOA message boards that there won’t be space for their children when Kindergarten rolls around.

Hildinger says the problem, while concerning, is not unique to WRE. Seven of 11 LH area elementaries also overflow students, he says, and a couple more come close.

Hildinger’s campaign led district officials to call a meeting last night at WRE. In attendance were Superintendent Dr. Kay Waggoner, trustees Justin Bono, Jean Bono and Kris Oliver, and numerous district staff members.

“Enrollment growth at WRE is a reflection on your community,” said Waggoner. “People continue to want to move to White Rock. We’re here because we genuinely want to hear your thoughts and ideas.”

“I am disappointed in our underestimation at White Rock,” admitted Bob Templeton, who said his company’s forecasts for other schools and the district as a whole were extremely close.  “We are working on our geocoding for apartment complexes and ‘regeneration’ in single family homes to better prepare as we forward. We will also be following deed transactions,” he said, since many homes in Lake Highlands are sold without ever being listed.

Several options have been historically considered to alleviate overcrowding, explained Tony Harkleroad, Deputy Superintendent for Finance and Support Services, and Dr. Chris Goodson, Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Schools:

1) continuing to overflow students to other schools,

2) requesting class size waivers (asking the State of Texas for permission to have more than 22 kids in a class with one teacher),

3) evaluating room utilization/repurposing space,

4) requesting WRE student access to RISD limited-access magnet programs (Math Science Technology and Arapaho Classical Magnet),

5) purchasing portables,

6) adjusting attendance boundaries,

7) grade level configuration (6th grade to JH or a 6th grade center),

8) building a new school in LH, and

9) adding classrooms to WRE.

Goodson and Harkleroad addressed some pros and cons of each.

1) “The only way to completely eliminate overflow,” said Harkleroad, “is to overbuild and overstaff. That’s not going to happen.”

2) “In previous years we had to rely on waivers and we went up to 25-26 in a classroom [in 2011 when state funding to public schools was cut]. It does have an impact,” said Goodson. “A good teacher will have a way to deliver discipline and instruction, but it does have an impact.”

3) The WRE teacher’s lounge has been repurposed as a classroom, some area-wide programs, such as special education, could be moved to other campuses.

4) Program availability and interest is not yet known.

5) Portables have been seen as an unattractive nuisance and a security risk.

6) “Everyone is okay with adjusting attendance boundaries, as long as their house isn’t included,” joked Harkleroad.

7) “Our sixth graders have been our leaders on campus and some of our highest performing students,” said Goodson. “We have opted to keep them where they are to maintain their success,” though Harkleroad added that LH has sometimes used options different than the rest of the district. One example: the freshman center.

8) Building a new school requires money and land. A new school can be completed in 18-24 months, said Harkleroad, and can be a neighborhood school (requires redrawing of boundaries) or a magnet school.

9) “Adding classrooms requires us to ask ourselves, ‘how big is too big?’” said Harkleroad. When six classrooms were added to WRE in 2014, some parents objected that the number was insufficient, that more growth was coming. But some objected that the “neighborhood feel” of the school would be lost if the school grew too large. Others said classrooms shouldn’t be added because they would overburden group spaces like the cafeteria, gym and library.

Harkleroad also noted that classroom and new school construction does not require a bond election. “We do have a capital projects fund. That’s how we built the previous 6 classrooms.” That fund currently has about $15.5 million, he said, and RISD needed about $2.7 million to build the last 6 classrooms.  Operating funds, the fund balance and the permanent school fund were mentioned as other possible funding sources.

RISD does have a history of building to alleviate growth in LH, said Harkleroad:

1) LHFC in 1997,

2) Forest Lane Academy in 1998,

3) Thurgood Marshall Elementary in 2004,

4) Joining the TIF (tax increment financing district) in 2006 (reduced the number of apartments in LH),

5) Aikin Elementary (6 classrooms) and Skyview (5) in 2013,

6) FMJH (10), MPE (6), Wallace (6) and WRE (6) in 2014,

7) LHJH (3) in 2015, and

8) LHHS (24) in the 2016 bond.

When pressed by Hildinger and other questioners for an immediate plan, Waggoner stood her ground.

“We’re going to wait for the updated demographic report to come out on January 5th. We missed it this year, that’s true. But if we build and it’s not supported by the data, that’s a misstep. We know you bought here because you want your kids to go to White Rock. Will we wait? Yes. Will we move quickly when we get the data? Yes. We will not move on something that big without the data.”

Justin Bono, RISD trustee from LH, asked for a show of hands on the options, “just to give me an idea of where you guys stand.” The most popular options in his straw poll were moving the sixth graders and building a new school. Building new classrooms was a close third. Nothing else registered more than a handful.

“I know there is a sense of urgency,” said Waggoner. “If there is a sense that we need to build a new school, we will have another meeting here.”

“We could be here talking about closing schools,” Waggoner said, referring to RISD’s previous demographer who recommended just that 8 years ago, “but Lake Highlands is a place people want to be.”