Rising enrollments reflect community growth
School districts tackle the challenges of a growing student population
By Rob Swenson
For the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce
About 24,000 students will be attending Sioux Falls Public Schools during the 2018-2019 school year, and a lot of them will be bumping into each other in crowded hallways.
Roosevelt High School in southwestern Sioux Falls, in particular, operates over its capacity. With about 2,300 students – 500 more than the desired level of 1,800 – Roosevelt is the biggest high school in Sioux Falls and South Dakota.
Space challenges extend, to lesser degrees, to most of the other schools in the district. With more than 1,300 students, Memorial Middle School in western Sioux Falls is the sixth largest school in the state, for example. It operates about 300 students over its desired capacity.
Washington and Lincoln High Schools in Sioux Falls also are among the six largest schools in the state. The other two are Central and Stevens High Schools in Rapid City.
A few schools in Sioux Falls, including McGovern Middle School, operate under capacity, but they are exceptions. Nineteen of the district’s 23 elementary schools are at or above capacity.
Enrollment projections indicate that the challenges facing the district will get bigger as growing classes of students in lower grades work their way toward graduation. Enrollment in the Sioux Falls School District increased 20 percent during the past decade, and the student count is expected to jump another 10 percent in the coming decade.
This past school year, enrollment in kindergarten through the second grade was 478 students above the capacity of the district’s middle schools. And enrollment in kindergarten through the third grade was 1,114 beyond of the capacity of existing high school buildings.
Superintendent Brian Maher refers to the situation as the district’s “delightful challenge.” But he also stresses that the time for identifying and implementing solutions is running short. “We’re already overcrowded. We already need a solution, particularly for Roosevelt High School,” Maher said. “Time is of the essence.”
School district officials and community leaders have been aware of the unfolding issue for a few years and have been exploring possible solutions for several months.
A 30-member Facilities Task Force comprised of community leaders in a variety of fields recently completed a study of the issue by recommending that the School Board authorize an election on a $190 million bond issue. A public election could be held in September.
Panel’s key recommendations
The bond issue would fund several facility-related improvements, including the construction of three new schools:
• A new high school in northwest Sioux Falls that would open in 2021.
• A new middle school in southeast Sioux Falls that would open in 2021.
• A new elementary school at an undetermined location that would open in 2024.
Among the factors that drove the recommendations was a desire to maintain a 24:1 student to teacher ratio. The maximum desired enrollment would be 1,800 at high schools, 1,000 at middle schools and 600 at elementary schools.
In addition to the construction of new schools, the Facilities Task Force also recommended expansions and improvements at a few existing schools and suggested that the district begin buying land to accommodate future construction of a new Whittier Middle School in east-central Sioux Falls.
Whittier, which has been upgraded multiple times, is well preserved, but it is nearly a century old and has become outdated. The school is estimated to have about 10 years of useful service left. Present plans call for Whittier to eventually be replaced with a new school in its existing neighborhood in central Sioux Falls. However, additional land will have to be acquired to accommodate construction.
The city’s newest high school, a replacement for the previous Washington, was built in 1992. Roosevelt was built in 1991 and Lincoln was built in 1965. New Technology High School, a specialty school that focuses on project-based, team learning, is the district’s only high school that operates under capacity. It operates in a wing of a building on the campus of the Southeast Technical Institute.
Task force members held four public meetings to explore problems and solutions.
“It went better than I could have expected. We had strong consensus from the group for more buildings to meet our growing enrollments,” said Vernon Brown, who co-chaired the task force.
“The need was huge. I was worried about how it would affect taxes. But I think we found a reasonable solution,” he said.
Approval of the bond issue by 60 percent of the voters in the district would raise property taxes on a house valued at $185,000 by about $24 per year. The owner of a $185,000 home presently pays $1,530 per year in school taxes. Approval of the bond issue would increase the total up to $1,554.
The school district would partly offset the cost of the bond issue with capital outlays.
The bond debt would be paid off over 25 years. School officials estimate that even with the tax boost to pay the bond, Sioux Falls would rank favorably in terms of school tax burden in comparison to present levies in 10 other districts in the area.
Sioux Falls presently ranks last among 11 area school districts in property taxes for schools. The current levy on an owner-occupied home is $8.27 per $1,000 of taxable value.
With a projected, post-bond tax levy of $8.40, Sioux Falls would rank 10th. Only Canton presently has a lower levy. Harrisburg, Tea Area, Garretson, Baltic, Brandon Valley, Dell Rapids, Lennox, West Central and Tri-Valley all have current levies of $8.47 or more. Harrisburg is the highest at $11.66.
“It’s a fiscally prudent bond amount, given the facilities that need to be built to keep up with our growing enrollment,” said Nan Baker, the other co-chair of the task force.
In addition to space concerns, crowding reduces student opportunities to participate in activities such as sports. The community needs to address space issues in schools now, before the challenge evolves into a crisis, Baker said.
“The facts are that we have a growing community. We realize that is a problem to embrace and proactively address,” Baker said. “I think the community reflects that sentiment.”
Increasing regional influences
Based on residential growth trends, Sioux Falls’ 2040 Comprehensive Plan projects there will be about 11,000 additional students within the city limits in about two decades. Only about 3,000 of them are expected to be in the Sioux Falls School District, however. The rest will be in neighboring school districts, such as Brandon Valley and Harrisburg.
The numbers give perspective to how significantly impacted neighboring school districts are by the continuing growth of Sioux Falls, said Mike Cooper, director of planning and building services for the city.
The city limits of Sioux Falls include parts of seven school districts, and an eighth district is approaching. In addition to the Sioux Falls School District, school districts that extend into the city are Brandon Valley, Canton, Harrisburg, Lennox, Tea Area and Tri-Valley. West Central is getting close.
Harrisburg is the fastest-growing neighboring district, followed by Brandon Valley, Cooper said. The Harrisburg, Brandon Valley and Tea Area districts already have seven schools within Sioux Falls. Six of them are elementary schools and one is a middle school. They also have two sites for future schools.
The overlap of school districts into Sioux Falls raises planning issues for the city as well as political issues for school districts. Deciding where to locate new schools can be somewhat contentious, for example.
A future need in Sioux Falls is likely to be an elementary school to serve emerging neighborhoods in the northwestern part of the city. However, the best location for the school might be in the Tri-Valley School District, Cooper said.
Communities generally like to get out ahead of residential growth by locating sites and building elementary schools, which are catalysts for neighborhood growth, Cooper said.
Cooper served on the Facilities Task Force, so he provided insights on growth areas of the city. Sioux Falls needs a new high school in the northwest and a middle school in the southeast, he said. A site near McGovern Middle School could provide a future site for an elementary school.
“The headline (coming out of the task force’s work) was that we found a solution in terms of what we need and how to pay for the solution,” he said.
Why it matters to businesses
Steadily rising enrollment in schools reflects the steady population growth of the Sioux Falls area and the economic vitality of its expanding business community.
Baker, co-chair of the Facilities Task Force, said Sioux Falls has a top-notch school system that with additional facilities will continue to help develop future workers as well as help attract new employees and employers to the community.
Dean Dziedzic, interim president of the Sioux Falls Development Foundation, also said that having a good school system is important for economic development.
Like a lot of growing communities, a lot of local businesses are struggling to find enough good workers. A big part of the solution, long term, is for communities to grow their own workforce, Dziedzic said. That includes exposing students to good career paths at an early age and nurturing their interest.
Quality of life, including education, is also a factor in attracting new companies and professionals to the city, Dziedzic said. “One thing employers will look at is what opportunities we have for trailing spouses and children,” he said. “What kind of jobs and schools.”
Candy Hanson, president of Sioux Falls Thrive, said that having a good K-12 school system is more important today than it has been for several decades.
Baby Boomers made huge contributions when they entered the workforce to diversify the city’s economy in fields such as manufacturing, healthcare and financial services, Hanson said. “The kids coming through our school system today are the ones who will lead the transition to our next economy. If they’re not prepared to succeed in the high-tech, high-skilled trade and professional positions businesses need to sustain growth, Sioux Falls will lose its competitive edge,” she said.
Studies have shown that people without a high school education create a net drain on government and social services. “The investment we make in our kids and making sure they achieve their highest educational and career potential produces big community benefits. Savings in public assistance can be redirected to quality of life projects,” Hanson said.
Having to explore options to contend with growing enrollment actually puts the community in an enviable position, Brown said.
“These are hard, expensive decisions we’re making. But what other community in the state wouldn’t love to be in this situation?” he said. “Every school district in the state would like to be in our situation.”