District juggles as it runs out of classroom space

By Paul Archipley | May 02, 2012

The wall opposite Fred Poss’ desk is festooned with numbers – 11 sheets of yellow legal paper, each representing one of the Mukilteo School District’s elementary schools.

Each sheet includes such information as the number of students at that school, the number who have transferred into or out of that school during the current school year, the number of classrooms at each school, and other statistics.

The deputy superintendent is a visual problem solver, so it helps him to see those stats, along with boundary maps and other data, in a “big picture” way.

It’s a puzzle that’s never completed, because the numbers are constantly changing; soft numbers – enrollment projections that may or may not pan out in any particular year – must be reconciled with hard numbers – actual enrollment.

So it’s also a juggling act. Educators have to determine how best to utilize staff and facilities to ensure there’s space for every student.

That’s especially a challenge at the K-5 level. Unlike many school districts in Washington, the economy hasn’t stopped growth here.

Since 2003, the district has averaged more than 80 elementary-age students per year – 735 students in all, more than the size of one typical elementary school.

Dr. Les Kendrick, a statistician who has been projecting Mukilteo district enrollment for more than 15 years, said that trend is likely to continue.

However, Dr. Kendrick cautioned, this year’s birth rate was the lowest in more than a decade – attributable perhaps to a weak economy.

Still, he considers that to be an anomaly. He noted that the state of Washington predicts a marked increase in K-12 enrollment between 2015 and 2025, largely the result of the grandchildren of baby boomers becoming eligible for school.

The Mukilteo district’s immediate challenge is at the elementary level; both middle and high school facilities should be able to absorb growth in the near term.

But going back to 2007-08, the district has been juggling K-5 students. It put a $139 million capital projects bond on the ballot in February 2008 that would have included construction of a new elementary school as well as major upgrades  to Discovery and Mukilteo elementary schools.

Although 57 percent of voters approved the measure, it failed to meet the 60 percent supermajority requirement for passage.

Consequently, officials have been moving students from overcrowded campuses to those with space, and adding portable classrooms everywhere. Mukilteo Elementary, for example, has 10 portables, with two classrooms in each building.

With an average of 25 students per class, that means the portables alone could accommodate up to 500 students at full capacity.

Debra Fulton, executive director of District Services, said they have even moved entire kindergarten programs between schools, and plan to add two more classrooms at Discovery next fall.

Still, Kendrick’s projections show that five of the 11 elementary schools will be overcrowded next fall. When students actually enroll, there’s a possibility that even more schools will be over capacity, Fulton said.

On the east side of the district, in particular, officials will be closely monitoring enrollment at Horizon, Fairmount and Discovery, she said.

Meanwhile, Poss is staring at his wall of numbers, pondering options.

The first reaction is always the same. “We always think, ‘We’re getting crowded, we need more space, let’s build a school,’” Poss said.

In fact, he is compiling information to present to the board for consideration of another bond measure, probably in February of 2014.

But educators are looking for other options, too.

He said state officials are pushing for mandatory all-day kindergarten, which the Mukilteo district offers only on a limited basis now.

“Right now I have two sessions per day – 50 kids,” Poss said. “If I implement all-day kindergarten for everyone, I need 25 more rooms. That’s another school.”

But what if, instead, the district was to build a kindergarten center, perhaps two? Each would be the equivalent of half a school, at a smaller price tag.

Perhaps they could be built with infrastructure that would support a full-size school later on.

“We’re trying to brainstorm ideas,” Poss said. “Rather than the ‘full meal K-5,’ is there a better solution?

“We’re trying not to overreact now. What we do know is we are running out of space, and a lot of our schools are out of space already.”

The answer, perhaps, is hidden in plain sight on that wall of data in Fred Poss’ office.

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