Why District 204 needs new demographic data

 
 
Updated 3/24/2017 2:02 PM

Enrollment projections show the most crowded school in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 will be filled to 103 percent of its capacity next year, while the three least crowded schools each will use only 44 percent of their space.

That disparity has several school board members and administrators calling for a new demographic study to determine how the district's student population can best be served in coming years.

 

The study, which the district hopes to begin this spring and complete in the fall, will help decide if boundary changes are needed to better balance the distribution of students and if there are ways to reduce class sizes and school crowding.

The study also comes as the district is experiencing decreasing enrollment and rising property values, a combination expected to lower state funding in coming years, said Jay Strang, chief school business official.

"We're losing more money per student because the state believes that we have more money locally for our kids," Strang said.

The financial, crowding and student distribution concerns combine to tell board members that new data is a must in the district that covers portions of Naperville, Aurora, Plainfield and Bolingbrook.

"We clearly need to do a demographic study," school board member Michael Raczak said.

Issues with large classes and school crowding are especially pronounced on the north side of the district, where Brookdale Elementary is projected to have 605 students next year -- 103 percent of the 585 students it can hold without having to use art and music spaces as regular classrooms.

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Meanwhile, Builta, Graham and Kendall elementaries on the south side of the district all are projected to have roughly 335 students, which is 44 percent of the kids they're designed to handle.

"We're very lopsided right now, especially in elementary-land," said Laura Devine Johnston, assistant superintendent for elementary schools. "We want it more evenly distributed."

Better distributing students across the district's 34 schools could help decrease large classes, which have been a concern since at least the last round of teacher contract negotiations in 2015. The agreement formed from those negotiations called for creation of a committee of teachers and administrators to study class sizes and present recommendations for addressing them.

Strang told school board members Monday that any move to lower class sizes will be costly and require budget cuts or dipping into reserves.

The cheapest option -- to reduce core classes to 25 students at the elementary level, 27 in middle school and 28 in high school -- would cost $2.3 million. To cut class sizes by one student across the district would cost $4.8 million, he said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Those estimates both assume smaller classes could be achieved without building additions to any schools or making major changes to locations of programs such as English language learners and special education.

Rather than building additions, school board member Maria Curry said redrawing boundaries and rebalancing students could create the opposite effect.

"We might not need one or two of these schools," Curry said. "Do we need three schools at 44 percent occupancy?"

The district last hired a consultant to conduct a demographic study in 2012. School board President Lori Price said the study was relatively accurate, although the recession delayed some developments and made reality differ slightly from projections.

A new study could examine the trend of decreasing student populations the district has noticed since its peak enrollment of 29,613 students in 2010. During the past seven years, Strang said the district's enrollment has decreased by about 1,500 students and now stands at 28,095.

When fewer students attend school, the district receives less state aid because part of the funding formula is based on average daily attendance.

"We're beginning to talk about ways to soften the impact," Strang said. "It's becoming more and more difficult. There is absolutely no low-hanging fruit anymore."

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