Two area school districts have nearly $800 million invested in all new schools but many are busting at the seams because the districts built smaller or fewer buildings based on state enrollment projections, a Dayton Daily News investigation has found.
Both districts — Dayton Public and Huber Heights City schools — have asked the Ohio School Facilities Commission to review their enrollment to determine if more school space or financial help might be possible.
Dayton Public completed its $627 million building project earlier this year when it opened its 26th new school. A newspaper analysis of fresh enrollment data and the listed student capacity for each new building found at least 12 schools at or above capacity.
“Some schools are bulging at the seams,” said John Carr, the district’s chief construction officer. School officials point to an uptick in enrollment since seven charter schools shut their doors in the last two years. That’s causing a problem because some of the schools were built smaller than the old schools based on the state projections.
The situation prompted the Dayton district — which welcomes students back on Wednesday — to place several incoming freshmen on a waiting list to get the school of their choice and to do a balancing act by finding spaces for preK-8 students in other nearby schools that have open seats.
“We are constantly looking at capacity to make sure we can accommodate,” Superintendent Lori Ward said.
Huber Heights City Schools, still in the midst of its $166 million construction project, has been forced to spend $140,000 to modify the old Studebaker Middle School for preschool and elementary gifted classes. Officials hope that will free up much-needed space for sixth-graders in the five new elementary schools.
All five schools were already at capacity when they first opened last year because they had so many preschoolers, new Superintendent Susan Gunnell said.
The capacity dilemma occurred despite school leaders taking the precautionary step of asking voters to approve an additional $1.2 million in 2008 so they could add an extra classroom to each elementary school.
Huber Heights built three fewer schools based on the state projections, going from seven elementary schools to five and from two middle schools to one junior high. The high school is still under construction.
District officials said that early in the process they had disputed the state’s preschool enrollment projections by DeJong-Healy, a private contractor based in Dublin that was hired by the OSFC to provide the enrollment forecasts. The firm currently does all the projections in the state.
The same contractor also had done enrollment forecasts for the Trotwood-Madison and two Clark County school districts that led to about $40 million worth of new schools being taken out of service because they grossly miscalculated student enrollments the districts would have. Those closed schools were the focus of an earlier Daily News investigation, an apparent case of overbuilding that is the opposite situation of what Dayton Public and Huber Heights are now facing.
Now, Huber Heights school leaders want OSFC to pick up $624,000 of the $1.2 million that was spent locally to add the extra classrooms, charging the state miscalculated enrollment projections. School officials want the state pay 52 percent of the cost because that represents its share of the overall project, and would off-set the cost of the Studebaker renovations.
In an April 5 letter to OSFC Director Richard Hickman, then-Huber Heights Superintendent William Kirby pleaded the district’s case.
“We are faced with a disheartening situation in the Huber Heights community because our five elementary schools are not large enough to accommodate our students for Pre-k through 6th grade,” wrote Kirby, who has since retired.
“We believe the demographic study completed by DeJong-Healy was in error,” he wrote. “We would like to appeal the decision to not co-fund five additional classrooms. It is obvious that if we had not added the classrooms we would be in a terrible situation with student enrollment exceeding 100 percent in the new elementary schools.”
Melanie Drerup, OSFC’s deputy chief of planning for the entire state, said Thursday she responded to Kirby’s letter on April 18 and told him OSFC had requested DeJong review the enrollment data. DeJong did the review and determined there was a need to do a new enrollment projection for the district, she said.
Drerup said she expects OSFC will respond to the district within the next couple of weeks.
“We have some data but we haven’t analyzed it to the level of knowing what action the commission may take,” she said. OSFC will simultaneously review the funding request.
Drerup defended DeJong-Healy, saying it has done “a great job for the commission as evidenced by the fact they have been successful in getting contracts with the commission since 2000.” DeJong-Healy could not be reached for comment.
Bill Prenosil, an OSFC planning director, acknowledged there are school districts that were underbuilt and are at capacity. But he said the state is not to blame because enrollment can be difficult to predict, especially on large building projects that take years.
“It’s pretty amazing that we’ve been as successful as we have if you look at all the districts where they may be a little down or a little bit over, but they’re about right. That’s the majority of them,” said Prenosil.
Variables may include the impact of charter schools, neighboring districts opening new schools, industry closing or coming into town, even the economy and related issues such as home foreclosures, he said.
“You’ve got just myriads of things to worry about,” he said, “and you do the best you can trying to predict it and hope that it works.”
An influx of charter students
Belmont, Dunbar, Thurgood Marshall and Meadowdale high schools were built much smaller than the old high schools because the district was projected to have a declining enrollment when it started the construction project a decade ago.
The district’s enrollment did decline, dropping from 20,586 in 2000-01 to 14,174 in 2010-11, according to Ohio Department of Education data. The high school enrollment also declined, from 5,265 to 3,971 during that same period.
Ward said she was caught off guard two years ago to see about 478 new ninth-graders in the district, including about 100 from charters, after four charters closed. Those were New City School, Nu Bethel Center of Excellence, Carter G. Woodson Institute and Academy of Dayton.
Ward said at that time because the district’s new schools were built on a projected declining enrollment calculation, many are now smaller in size, and that could cause a potential problem.
“If we hit a large influx in a grade, we may not have enough building seat space to accommodate those students,” she told the Daily News then.
Since then, three other charter schools have shut their doors. New Choices Community School, which had 129 students, closed in July, 2011, and Tech Con Institute in Trotwood, which had more than 50 students, also apparently closed.
ISUS, short for Improved Solutions for Urban Systems, is suspending operations for the upcoming 2012-13 school year to address its roughly $2 million debt and to develop a better funding model. The school had fewer than 200 students at its three campuses in the last school year.
Shelia Burton, Dayton Public’s director of assessment and accountability, said the hardest part is preparing for an unknown number of students who may have waited to enroll this school year.
“If the influx is more than I can anticipate, then there will be some concern,” Burton said. “It’s the unknown that is a little uneasy.”
Drerup is aware of the impact of charter schools on the district, saying, “They’ve been hit really hard.”
When enrollment projections were initially done for the big urban districts, legislation had just passed for charter schools so “we didn’t have a lot of real data showing this was going to happen,” she said. “As we’ve updated enrollment over the years we’ve certainly considered the charter schools and their impact.”
Drerup said its review found that the district would need to have “a significant enrollment uptick to qualify for additional schools” under the OSFC’s policy. That translates into showing 115 percent of design capacity for three years, which means 15 percent more students than the space built for them under the master plan. “The difference in numbers is about 900 students,” she said.
A newspaper review of the district’s Aug. 3 enrollment showed two of the district’s six high schools – Ponitz and Thurgood Marshall - were above the stated capacity.
Ten other schools for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade were at or above capacity, according to the data. That was down from 15 schools on July 19 as the district has worked to find spaces for students in other nearby schools that had openings.
The recent waiting lists included about 15 who asked for a school where the grade level was at capacity, Burton said, noting that enrollment is fluid and can change daily.
The district’s new plan to move 100 high school students to a new alternative school program, Longfellow Academy II, because they need extra help to stay on track to graduate should carry the benefit of opening spaces in the other high schools and whittle down those lists of students wanting to transfer.
Sheila Spearman of Dayton was surprised when her son, Christopher, 15, an incoming freshman, was added to a waiting list this summer after she tried to enroll him at the David H. Ponitz Career Technology Center. He had attended Mary Queen of Peace Catholic School through eighth-grade. She heard good things about Ponitz and thought it would be a good fit for him. Then she learned this summer there was no space.
Since that time, she has received a letter from the school district notifying her that her son would be attending Dunbar High School instead.
“I’m not thrilled at all,” she said. “My ex-husband and I decided next year he will be attending Chaminade (Julienne Catholic High School.) I can’t deal with Dayton Public Schools after this incident.”
While Carr is optimistic the district is addressing the capacity issue, he voiced concern about what would happen if more charters close.
“If we get 1,000 more students because three charters close, we’d be in deep doo-doo,” he said.
The district already has demolished all of its old schools, except one elementary but there is no plan to use that at this time.
In Huber Heights, school leaders are thankful they still have some old buildings that may help them get out of a jam.
Rushing to get classrooms ready
Huber Heights plans to move about 167 preschoolers to Studebaker to ease the elementary overcrowding, which put some sixth-grade classes in converted art rooms.
They are now scrambling to get 13 classrooms ready by the start of school on Aug. 22. Preschool starts on Aug. 27.
“We’ve just been doing that for the last five, six weeks and rushing hard to get those classrooms ready,” Gunnell said.
District data indicates the preschool enrollment doubled in the last 13 years, rising from 82 in 1998-99 school year to 167 last school year. Gunnell believes the discrepancy was that the state looked at the district’s projected enrollment only until 2007-08, when it had 140 preschoolers. But the next two school years it jumped to 191 and 205 preschoolers, respectively, before dropping back down to 194 and 167.
Prenosil said OSFC strives to avoid overbuilding and underbuilding schools because taxpayer money is involved.
“We are trying to right size,” he said, adding the OSFC is always trying to find ways it improve its process.
“One of the things we’re doing now is we’re doing another look at the enrollment right before we get too far in the design,” he said. “Anything that we can do to help us sort of right-size then we’re going to do that.”