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District considers new school to handle student increase

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A new elementary school could be on the horizon in Columbus.

It is among the strategies local school officials will consider to address a 500-student enrollment gain in the past decade.

Preliminary numbers show enrollment this year is up 169 students from the same time last year. Most of the growth, 113 students, is at the elementary level.

But Linda DeClue, assistant superintendent for human resources, stressed the numbers are only preliminary — the final count, which will determine the amount of funding the district will receive from the state, will happen Sept. 12.

Still, DeClue said she was pleased with the findings.

If the preliminary count holds up, it would represent one of the largest single-year increases for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. in nearly a decade.

While that means more state funding — which provides about $5,500 for each student in Grades 1 through 12 and half of that for kindergartners — it also mean more teachers and more classrooms are needed.

Finding more space

Schools are full now, but they are not bursting at the seams.

Southside Elementary was close to capacity a few years ago, but district officials relieved that with a redistricting plan.

They moved 135 Southside students to Mt. Healthy Elementary after much public debate.

But now Mt. Healthy is growing quickly, with a surprising 2014 kindergarten class of about 80 kids. A first-grade teacher also was added after the start of the school year.

Taylorsville, while not on the west side, also surprised officials with its growth. Principal Sydell Gant spent the first few days of school interviewing for a kindergarten teacher.

“Some of that growth is predictable, but you don’t want to take that hiring step too early,” DeClue said.

While the two new teachers took care of the additional students this year, what happens if enrollment continues to climb at the same rate?

BCSC’s District and Facilities Committee will take a deeper look at that question when enrollment is finalized after the official student count Sept. 12.

The district could rearrange students again, but Superintendent John Quick said redistricting is a move school officials are hoping to avoid.

Another likely possibility is a new school, which Quick said he envisions by the end of the decade.

The district acquired a large tract of land on the west side of Columbus in 2011 to set aside for an elementary school when needed.

The 23.3 acres of land south of Indiana 46 on Tipton Lakes Boulevard was part of a land swap agreement with Tipton Lakes Co. Inc., an offshoot of Irwin Management. In return, the district paid the company $102,000 and traded a 24.4-acre parcel of land north of Columbus Skateland Inc. on Talley Road.

The deal was the first step toward a new elementary school on that side of town.

A referendum would be the next step.

School officials said after the land agreement was finalized that they planned to ask the community to pay for a new school through a referendum by raising property taxes. They hoped to open the new elementary by fall of 2019.

While Quick still envisions a new elementary by the end of the decade, he said timing will depend on what the school corporation’s District and Facilities Committee finds in the next few months.

He said he pictures a school for about 400 students with an oversized cafeteria that can be converted to classroom space if necessary.

“You have to think of how many kids you can really get your arms around,” he said.

It takes about three years to take a new school from proposal to completion. If the district believes a new school would be the best option, officials will likely bring the idea to the public in 2016 or 2017.

Westward expansion

While Southside Elementary’s enrollment has held relatively stable over the past few years, officials are keeping a close eye on the school.

“They did not grow by leaps and bounds, which always makes me anxious,” DeClue said. “They’re already staffed pretty tightly, and class sizes are among the biggest in the district.”

And city officials and developers are expecting more growth in that area in the years to come — reconstruction of Carr Hill Road is evidence of that.

The $1.8 million project will transform the former county road into a city thoroughfare with wider lanes, curbs, gutters, storm sewers and bicycle lanes.

More than 2,500 vehicles were traveling on the road per day, with that number expected to increase 40 percent in less than 15 years.

Joel Spoon, principal broker with Spoon Real Estate and Construction, said developers of residential property are being encouraged to consider the west side — for several reasons.

One reason is premium farm land is located on the flatter east side of Columbus, so the hilly west side should be developed with homes and businesses.

Spoon was recently approved to go forward with his proposed Stonehaven subdivision, which would be located at Goeller Boulevard and County Road 350W.

“The interstate is there, the terrain is attractive and the governmental bodies that try to decide what the best land uses are for an area are kind of pushing in that direction,” he said. “They don’t want to eat up quality farm land for residential houses when we have other areas for that.”

His company is also developing an area called Westbrook, which is adjacent to the land acquired by the school district in 2011.

Spoon said as a developer and a builder, he considers the location of schools — and the possibility of a new school off of Tipton Lakes Boulevard was a plus to that property.

Keeping track

There are many factors that contribute to enrollment — the economy, birth rate and local events among them.

Quick said he tries to keep those factors in mind each year to anticipate and analyze the numbers.

Take the current class of seventh-graders, for example.

It included only 749 students last year, down more than 100 from the previous few years.

The students, typically ages 12 or 13, were born around 2002 — just months after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“The birth rate dropped 150 percent in this community because of 9/11, the trauma and stock market crash associated with it,” Quick said.

There was another drop in the fall of 2009, which Quick attributed to two things.

First, that was the year the International School of Columbus opened its doors and took about 75 students out of the public school system.

It was also a bad year financially for Columbus.

The recession was still causing people to leave the area to look for jobs, and the flood in June 2008 had damaged 3,000 homes and caused those residents to look for new places to live.

“Columbus has always been an attractive place to go,” Quick said. “There’s low unemployment, a good school system and steady growth. That’s a good thing to plan around.”

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