Harnett County needs schools and it needs them fast.
The Harnett County Schools Board of Education took a look into the future at its recent meeting and saw growth coming from every corner of the area.
OREd (Operations Research and Education Laboratory), an unbiased third party research group hired by the board to assist in its school planning process, detailed enormous growth in southern, northern and western Harnett County where some campuses already burst at the seams.
“You have a lot going on,” OREd’s Thomas Dudley said at the board’s March 28 meeting. OREd is based at N.C. State University and offers data-driven school planning solutions. “You have a lot of capacity needs, you have a lot of shifting populations within the district and you have very timely construction changes to mitigate that, and aging facilities to go along with that.”
HCS’ relationship with OREd dates back to 1999, and the board relies on its research, which includes a local enrollment forecast over the ensuing decade.
Dudley said the recent study focused on several growth factors such as the county’s proximity to Raleigh and Fort Bragg; decreasing travel times from Harnett County to high employment hubs such as the Research Triangle Park; abundant water and sewer capabilities; and being home to Campbell University, one of the fastest growing colleges in the state featuring advanced learning facilities in medicine and engineering.
Such appealing qualities attracted at least two dozen housing developments that are either beginning construction or will be by the end of the year, with the largest being Serenity and its estimated 1,186 lots on 547 acres near Angier.
“Those developments are planning on folks coming with kids and it’s a little concerning,” said board member Jason Lemons. “The land is going very quickly. Everything in the Kipling area is exploding. There are trucks in there constantly.”
OREd also factored in rates in resident live births and HCS’ membership history, both of which declined recently but are expected to stabilize post COVID-19.
Despite a dip in elementary school enrollment last year, Dudley predicted the number to rebound following a “redshirt year” for the potential 2020-21 kindergartners. COVID-19, however, does produce “uncertainty.”
OREd forecasted growth throughout the school district. After dropping from 9,692 members in 2016 to 8,411 last year, Dudley said the K-5 population should exceed 9,500 by 2030. Middle and high school populations also grow over the next decade.
“They’ve always kind of hit the mark for us,” HCS Superintendent Aaron Fleming said.
A group of regional tables showed southern and northern Harnett County already with a pair of schools over capacity and a third projected to be in 2021-22. Both Overhills elementary and high schools were at least 100 students above capacity. Lafayette Elementary School and Harnett Middle School ended 2021 above capacity, as did Highland Elementary School.
“Based on the chart, we need a middle, high and elementary school yesterday,” said Board Chairman Eddie Jaggers. “I didn’t realize Overhills and Highland were so far out of whack. What I’m looking at is Highlands and Overhills Elementary, we don’t have any other school near there that can take any of that.”
Dudley said HCS isn’t maxed out across the county, but certain areas have plenty of space where others have none.
“There are a couple ways to look at this data,” Dudley said. “For the most part there is sufficient capacity, it’s a matter of having the capacity where you need it is more of the question.”
The new Erwin Elementary School is expected to open some time during the 2021-22 school year and the planned Northwest Harnett Elementary School could break ground over the summer.
Eliot Duke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 910-230-2038.