The debate over the construction of a new high school in Leon County has begun.
Last year the headline in the Tallahassee Democrat said “Crowded Leon County may get a new high school.”
The article went on to say that “For years, classroom portables functioned as Band-Aids to overcrowding problems caused by steady hikes in student enrollment, but approval for a new high school could be just around the corner.”
Recently, Leon County School Board member Alva Striplin let her position be known at a meeting by saying she thinks a new high school needs to be located on the northside of Leon County.
Others, including Superintendent Jackie Pons, say a new high school is needed on the southside and would cost approximately $50 million.
But what do the numbers say?
Is there an overcrowding problem in Leon County that requires a new high school?
If so, where should it be located?
To begin answering these questions, TR turned to the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) database which provides great information on student enrollment.
Listed below is a graph of student enrollment in PK-12 Leon County Schools over the last five years.
Click on image to enlarge.
The graph for PK-12 enrollments shows that since the 2011-12 school year, Leon County Schools have added approximately 600 students. That is about a 1.8% increase over a five year period or 120 students per year.
At the state level, student enrollment increased by 4.6%, just over 2.5 times as fast over the same time period.
What about growth in high school enrollment?
Data from the FDOE shows that over the last five years, Leon County High Schools have added approximately 535 students for a 5.9% increase. This is equal to about a 1.2% increase in high school enrollment per year or approximately 100 new high school students per year.
This also indicates that only 65 students have been added to PK-8 enrollment over the last five years.
Do these numbers warrant a new high school?
Hillsborough County is another school district in Florida considering a new high school due to growth in enrollment.
However, Hillsborough’s K-12 growth is significantly higher than in Leon County over the last five years.
Total enrollment in Hillsborough increased 7.5% over the last five years compared to the 1.8% in Leon County.
High school enrollment in Hillsborough has increased 11.7% over the last five years compared to the 5.9% in Leon County.
However, growth in enrollment is not the only determining factor in building new schools. At times new schools are needed when population movement within a school district results in overcrowding in specific schools and unused space in others.
Is this occurring in Leon County? Lets look at current Leon County high school enrollment.
Three Leon County high schools – Lincoln, Leon and Chiles – are operating at or above capacity. The current enrollment for these schools fall between 2,000 and 2,200 students.
Lincoln is located in the eastern part of the district, while Chiles is located in the northeast part of Leon County. Leon High School is located in downtown Tallahassee.
However, two other high schools, Rickards and Godby, are operating significantly below capacity. Enrollment information shows that Rickards serves 1,284 students and Godby serves 1,273 students.
Rickards is located on the south side of the school district and and Godby is located on the west side.
Unused capacity at these two schools would indicate that the district could serve between 400 and 800 additional high school students. Based on passed growth trends – adding about 100 new high school students each year – rezoning could delay construction of a new high school by 3-5 years.
However, this brings up re-zoning, which is a painful process for students, parents and elected officials.
Is it more painful than spending $50 million for a new high school? This is a question elected officials will be forced to answer.
In Hillsborough County, Cindy Stuart, a school board member addressed the issue. “I never want to say it, but it does have to be said because as good stewards of our tax dollars, we need to put kids where we have seats. Maybe not tonight or tomorrow, but we can realize savings by putting children in the seats we have available before we start spending large amounts of money.”
A first look at the information for the Leon County school district indicates three high schools operating at high capacity and two high schools are operating significantly below capacity.
There appears to be two options – rezoning or building a new high school. If elected leaders choose to build, the next question is where?
In our next report we will look at population trends within Leon County and try to provide information that might lead to an answer to the $50 million question?