Student tsunami: 5,300 more pupils expected soon at just four SW Marion County schools

·5 min read

A tsunami of development expected in the next few years could add nearly 5,300 more school-age children to the attendance zones of four southwestern Marion County schools, a local school district report says.

According to Marion County Public Schools, 18,854 single-family homes and multifamily units have been approved in a triangle west of Interstate 75, south of Southwest 38th Street and north of the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway.

That kind of growth would mean the district would need three large elementary schools, a middle school and a small high school just to house the influx of children that could soon be arriving in one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation.

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The report estimates the new units would add 2,672 new elementary school students, 1,254 additional middle school pupils and 1,370 new high school students in just that southwest triangle.

As the boundary lines are currently drawn for the four schools in that triangle region, the influx will likely cause a flood of new students.

• Saddlewood Elementary School: New developments are projected to add 1,343 more students to its attendance zone. Though capacity is 910, the March enrollment was 962, or 5.7% above capacity. Enrollment has grown by 10.8% since August.

• Hammett Bowen Elementary School: New developments could add 1,329 more students to its attendance zone. Though capacity is 824, the March enrollment was 852, or 3.4% above capacity. Enrollment has grown by 11.3% since August.

• Liberty Middle School: New developments could add 1,254 more students to its attendance zone. Though capacity is 1,203, the March enrollment was 1,339, or 12.1% above capacity. Enrollment has grown by 3.9% since August.

• West Port High School: New developments could add 1,370 more students to its attendance zone. Though capacity is 2,452, the March enrollment was 2,748, or 11.3% above capacity. Enrollment has grown by 1.3% since August.

The data comes about a week after the county looked at growth

At a Marion County Commission workshop a few weeks ago, it was revealed that more than 50,000 residential units have been approved throughout Marion County in the past five years, and that's only through March.

West Port High School students walk through the courtyard area near the cafeteria during a change of period in 2020.
West Port High School students walk through the courtyard area near the cafeteria during a change of period in 2020.

The number does not include nearly 86,000 undeveloped home lots approved decades ago. Marion County's population will likely hit 400,000 in 2024 and 500,000 by 2040.

On Thursday, during a school board work session called to address growth issues, board members learned about the tsunami that was coming. They agreed that much discussion needs to happen, along with more meetings with Marion County and City of Ocala governments and elected representatives.

"I want to propose that we do have another joint meeting, not just with the county but with the city (Ocala) to address some of these issues, instead of us (school board members) just having a conversation," Cummings said.

Alfredo Ruiz cuts 2X4s while framing interior walls for Trimcor Construction in 2021. Marion County's population is growing, putting pressure on already overcrowded schools in southwest Marion.
Alfredo Ruiz cuts 2X4s while framing interior walls for Trimcor Construction in 2021. Marion County's population is growing, putting pressure on already overcrowded schools in southwest Marion.

Cummings said the school district needs the "other local governmental entities to weigh in on some of these problems that we're trying to solve."

Board members agree that it is time for all to work together

Cummings asked why school attendance zones have not been moved to push some students in overcrowded schools to rural facilities, where the district has capacity.

Cummings, as well as most board members, has said he doesn't support busing students miles and miles from overcrowded schools to schools with capacity in the northern portion of the county.

"The county has never rezoned without having to because of building a new school," said Stephen Ayres, director of school choice, magnet programs and student records.

As for adding portables: Board members soon learned that it is not as easy as just sending a modular classroom to an overcrowded campus.

Barbara Dobbins, the district's executive director of operations and emergency management, said: When "we built Liberty Middle School, we actually planned for extensions for portables."

"So there are currently electrical and wiring set up so we can quickly bring in portables and attach them," Dobbins said. But "as far as Saddlewood, we don't have the electrical capacity for more portables, so that is a factor at multiple schools."

Board member Nancy Thrower said she has been working with County Commissioner Michelle Stone to revise an interlocal agreement that has not been updated since the national recession of 2008.

"I have seen how our school system has started to grow, seeing the momentum that we're gaining," Thrower said. Thrower added that "I know this is just the beginning of more conversation, moving forward, but thrilled with what we're talking about it."

Board member Kelly King said one reason that overcrowding issues have been difficult to address is that the school board has a reputation of not playing well with other government agencies.

"I've been hearing a little bit in the community that maybe this board hasn't always been respectful of the other roles of other entities," King said. "I do hope moving forward that there is an understanding that we're all in this together."

The board will begin scheduling a series of work sessions to discuss different options about how to fund new school construction.

Joe Callahan can be reached at (352) 817-1750 or at joe.callahan@starbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.

This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Development pressure strains schools in SW Marion County, Florida