Running out of room at Blair Oaks

Although Blair Oaks school leaders typically keep an eye on incoming kindergartners and ninth-graders as a way to gauge the district’s growth, next year it might be Blair Oaks Middle School splitting at the seams. And it might take a mobile building to relieve the space crunch.

Superintendent Jim Jones told Board of Education members that in recent years the middle school’s population has fluctuated between 307 to 327 students. But next year 346 students — the largest enrollment since the facility opened in January 2009 — are expected to attend.

The building is designed to handle 360 students, but because of the way the middle school curriculum is currently organized, it’s challenging to find another empty classroom, Jones said.

“It may require an additional teacher, but there’s no place for them to go,” he said. “At this stage, we don’t know if we need (a mobile building) or not.”

Jones envisioned placing the new mobile classroom at the north end of the middle school along Falcon Lane. Annual cost estimates to lease a facility range between $6,000 to $8,000.

The idea isn’t a certainty. To address the space crunch, Jones said he’s searching for room in other buildings on the campus and may move teachers around.

He isn’t considering expanding the middle school yet.

“We want to make sure any short-term answer is part of a long-term solution,” he noted.

As currently envisioned, one future plan for the Blair Oaks campus is to build another school for grades 9-12 and use the existing primary school to house grades K-2, the existing middle school to house grades 3-5 and the existing high school to house grades 6-8.

By expanding the middle school, it would likely make the building a bit too roomy to house only three grades.

“We don’t want to overbuild the facilities we have. But we might expand it in the future,” he said, noting the middle school is designed to grow by eight to 12 classrooms without strain.

Jones is hopeful, if the district’s bonding capacity limitations can be overcome, that voters will be interested in building a new school. He’s been carefully monitoring legislation moving through the General Assembly that would raise the cap and allow schools like Blair Oaks to issue more general obligation bonds. Currently, because the district is primarily composed of residential property, with very limited commercial property, its assessed valuation is constrained.

Currently the district’s available bonding capacity is about $8 million for the 2014-15 school year, if voters are willing to undertake a tax increase of 6 cents on top of the $3.66 per $100 dollars of assessed valuation they currently pay.

If they wait a year, the district might be able to raise another $1.2 million — which is why Jones said he’s considering the mobile classroom building.

“We’re trying to grow out bonding capacity,” he explained.

If the Legislature lifts the cap from 15 to 20 percent, in the 2017-18 school year the district could potentially issue $17.1 million in general obligation bonds — almost enough to build a new school.

“Who knows better the needs of the district than our patrons?” he asked.

“This is ultimately about local control.”

The topic was mentioned only briefly at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, where members mainly spent the evening discussing a host of disparate subjects.

At the meeting, the board also:

• Agreed to meet briefly Tuesday to review construction bids for a proposed new parking lot east of Falcon Lane. As designed, the new lot will have 101 parking spaces, a crosswalk and a sidewalk to the middle school.

• Approved a new school calendar for the 2014-2015 school year.

• Heard about the expansion of the district’s dual credit program. Next year, students will be able to take four new courses: Physics, Introduction to Microcomputers, Introduction to World Literature and Spanish 4. For the first time, juniors — who qualify for the program by having a 3.5 GPA and performing well on standardized exams — will be permitted to enroll in the courses.

• Learned about changes to the high school’s ACT prep program. Instead of studying during part of the school day, students will be able to sign up for slots on eight weeknights. Also, students will be able to choose, à la carte, what subjects they want to concentrate on.

• Learned that the district is facing a possible 20 percent increase in health care costs, although administrators were hopeful to whittle that expense down some.

• Learned that the summer school program likely will be expanded slightly. Elementary School Principal Kim Rodriquez noted 469 student enrolled last year and space wasn’t a problem.

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