The way state officials determine a school district’s need for new schools is preventing Gilbert Unified from adding schools where it needs them the most.
While schools in the Gilbert Unified School District’s northwest section are experiencing stagnant or declining enrollment, demand for classroom space in the south and far east continues to grow.
But when the state considers funding a new school, it looks at district enrollment changes as a whole — a broad perspective that doesn’t account for varying growth rates in different parts of the district.
“When you have schools that aren’t growing or are going down (in population), it takes longer to qualify (for state funding),” said Keith Vaughan, director of planning and development for the Gilbert district.
Vaughan estimates Gilbert’s next state-funded school will be built in 2010, but the only project the state’s School Facilities Board has conceptually approved is a 2,600-student high school to open in 2011.
The district had planned to pay for a fifth high school with bond funds. However, with rising construction costs and overcrowding at Spectrum Elementary School, the board voted in the fall to instead move forward with the first phase of a 28th elementary school, hoping the state will fund the high school.
Spectrum, 2846 S. Spectrum Way, opened in 2003 with 500 students. It was built for 1,056 students and currently has 1,180 with six external, prefabricated classrooms called “portables” to accommodate the students.
The first phase of the new elementary school is being built for 400 students. There are plans to use portables if the school grows beyond 400 students. If the district decides to build a second phase, making it an 800-student school, they would have to ask voters to approve a bond or wait for state funding.
Vaughan said while the district is nearing buildout, officials are planning for a 29th elementary school in Morrison Ranch, where 2,500 homes will soon be under construction at Power and Warner roads.
Another school might be needed near the district’s eastern boundary, where an additional 1,056 homes are going up at Jackson Homes Properties, northwest of the intersection at Guadalupe and Signal Butte roads.
But with declining enrollment where Gilbert’s older schools are located — the area bounded by Country Club Drive to the west, Baseline Road to the north, Greenfield Road to the east and Warner to the south — it’s hard to tell how long the district would be waiting for state funding.
“It always sounds like if you have declining areas you have classrooms available,” Vaughan said. “That’s not always true. (We) put special programs in those areas ... All of our classrooms are filled (and we) still have to house new students that are coming, so that’s the challenge.”
In the coming years, the Gilbert district will likely place a greater emphasis on specialized schools, such as Neely Traditional Academy or Gilbert Classical Academy, which opens in the fall, to attract outof-district students and those attending charter schools.
“We’d love to have those students back,” said Superintendent Brad Barrett, “If we can attract them back, of course, the picture changes.”
Barrett said he hasn’t considered closing any schools.
“Some school boards and superintendents (must) ask that question if those measures don’t work,” he said. “That’s way down the road — a long ways down.”
Board President Thad Stump said he expects to see the district’s next two elementary schools built with voterapproved bonds.
“The time is right now for we as a board to start looking at the complexion of our district five to 10 years down the road and doing some serious planning,” Stump said.