Looking at the capacity question of the 2019 Referendum (UPDATED)

Question 2 of the 2019 Eastern Carver County Schools Referendum is a request to spend $111.7 million on capital projects – the largest of which is $35 million on a new elementary school to built on district-owned land in southwest Chaska.

Opponents of the referendum have indicated that there is already enough capacity in our schools to handle the projected growth in our district, and that a new school is unnecessary. Let’s start our analysis by looking at the district’s actual capacity, rolling back the clock to before the 2015 referendum and seeing how that compares to today.

Capacity Over Time

“Program capacity” as defined here is the capacity of the school based on the current use of its space. So, as an example, an area used for special education purposes would have a lower program capacity than a similarly-sized area used for a typical classroom setting.

Historical program capacity by building

As you can see from the numbers, program capacity since the 2015 referendum has every level of the district. At the elementary level, La Academia and Kinder Academy have relocated from their previous locations at the then-Kindergarten Center and Bluff Creek elementary to the former Chaska Elementary building. Carver Elementary has opened, and additions created more capacity at Clover Ridge and Victoria (while allowing some common spaces to be reclaimed). Changes at the secondary level occurred as well, most notably Chaska High School reclaiming one of its houses which was previously being used for early childhood education.

Where are we at today from an enrollment perspective?

Current enrollment and capacity by building

Based on enrollment figures, there are about 185 open seats at the elementary level (excluding the specialized programs of La Academia and Kinder Academy), and comfortable capacity numbers at the middle and high school level. Which brings us to the projections for growth.

Under the district’s projections (done by consulting firm Davis Demographics), elementary school enrollment will top current elementary school capacity by the end of the 2020-21 school year and be nearly 800 students higher than current enrollment by 2024-25.

Even less optimistic estimates of growth (such as a somewhat discounted growth rate on the Davis projections or using the last five-year trend of just over 1% growth) show that the district will be over capacity at the elementary level in less than five years.

The bigger question

Opponents of the new school have pointed out there is significant capacity at the middle and high school levels. Why can’t we just move kids there, they ask? Even under the most optimistic projections of growth, the district would not risk being over capacity in total until nearly a decade from now.

Enrollment projections and capacity by school levelyellow cells indicate where enrollment is larger than capacity

Well, we’ve answered this question before. From 2012-2014, I worked on a district facilities task force that dealt with the same sort of question – how to deal with rapidly rising enrollment at the elementary level.

The task force produced three options for the School Board and senior administration to review.

The first option was called “Cram”. It involved not building any new schools but just redrawing elementary boundary lines to balance enrollment across schools. Class sizes would get progressively larger, but boundaries could be redrawn – yearly, if necessary — to spread the pain evenly.

The second option was called “Shuffle”. It too, involved not building any new schools, but instead solved the elementary school problem by shuffling kids – among the options looked at were moving some 5th graders to middle schools and moving some 8th graders to high schools.

The third option was “Build”. This was the option selected at the time, and after the 2015 referendum passed, Carver Elementary opened in 2017.

Most people probably don’t remember the public feedback around those three options, but as a member of the task force, I do.

The “Shuffle” solution, which referendum opponents seem to be favoring in some fashion, was broadly unpopular. It was even more unpopular if people discovered that it was their kids who were going to be “shuffled” as opposed to someone else’s kids. The reality is that it’s easy on a spreadsheet to shuffle kids and balance enrollments, but there are real world consequences to doing so.

Middle school buildings are not equipped today to deal with elementary school students. Even if there is classroom space, scheduling of common facilities is problematic. For instance, Chaska Middle School East struggles with physical education space during the 3+ months that the dome in not available during the school year and adding several sections of fifth graders to the mix wouldn’t make it any easier.

Other parents balked at their fifth graders riding the bus with eighth graders or having to share school start and end times with middle schoolers. In the end, most folks agreed that a “shuffle” plan was not the best answer for our kids, and the 2015 referendum to build a new school earned 69% of the vote.

I’m not telling you to vote “yes” here — that’s up to you. I’m just suggesting that the question of whether the elementary capacity is needed goes a lot deeper than just putting the numbers on a spreadsheet and seeing if Column B is less than Column A.

UPDATE (9/18):

I was alerted to some comments on Facebook by referendum opponents regarding this post, and just wanted to post some clarifications and additional comments.

  1. One of the complaints was that I did not include the current Family Learning Center (former Kindergarten Center) in the current elementary school capacity. Yes, it is true that we could choose to put elementary school students back into that facility. However, I don’t feel that would be prudent. That building is lacking two critical components: a gymnasium and a kitchen. It is better suited to its current use housing early childhood and preschool programs that don’t require those amenities. Besides, if you do move those early childhood and preschool programs, you still need to find somewhere else to put them and would incur additional expense to utilize that space.
  2. Accusations were made that the data above did not come from the district. That is not true, with the exception of elementary school enrollment projection scenarios #2 and #3, which were generated by me as described in the original post. Some of the enrollment figures in these files received from the school district on September 12, 2019, are either more recent or pull enrollment at different dates than what has been published in other district documents. In the interest of transparency, I have attached the three source files received from the district below.
  3. The issue of program capacity versus absolute capacity was raised. It is true that program capacity does not reflect the maximum capacity scenario for a particular school. What is does reflect is the reality that not every space in a school — whether a traditional classroom or a special education room or a science lab or a music room or an art room — has the same practical capacity per square foot. Not every inch of the school is going to be able to be maxed-out from a capacity perspective.