The number of students in Rutherford County schools has increased by more than 1,000 students per year for six of the past seven years, creating a struggle to find enough classroom space to accommodate the student population, schools leaders say.
Some students are in portable classrooms, and the school district is moving forward with expansions of existing elementary and middle schools and development of new schools to handle the growth.
Rutherford County Schools Communication Director James Evans said that the annual growth in student population has created a need for classroom space that is the equivalent of one new school per year.
The proposed five-year building plan includes additions to Rock Springs Elementary (2020), Rockvale Elementary (2020), La Vergne Middle (2021), and Roy Waldron (2021).
In addition, a new elementary school in south Murfreesboro and new middle school in the Highway 231 area on the north side of Murfreesboro are planned for 2021. Also planned are a new middle school in south Murfreesboro in 2022, and an elementary school in 2023 that has an undetermined location, according to a document on the Rutherford County Board of Education website and Evans.
Although new schools are part of the plan, it doesn’t mean for certain that they will be built, Evans said. For example, the county still hasn’t bought land for a proposed middle school in the Highway 840 corridor though it is still part of the plan.
Rutherford County Property Assessor Rob Mitchell noted that an issue to watch is that the county is beginning to run out of inexpensive places to develop.
While the county has a lot of room area-wise to grow and expand, Mitchell said overall land area doesn’t necessarily translate into appropriate places to build.
“How much of it is rock? How much of it is a floodway,” Mitchell said. “That’s what we have to look at.”
Rutherford County Schools currently uses more than 150 portable, trailer-style classrooms for its 44,000-plus enrolled students, Evans said. Student population is expected to grow at an average rate of 3 percent over the next two years, and 3.25 percent for the three years after that, according to school system’s estimates. By 2023-24, the county is expected to have almost 54,000 students in the system.
As more students come in, classes could get larger. Student-to-teacher ratio maximums are set by the state. For grades K-3, each grade level should average 20 students with the maximum for any single class capped at 25. For grades 4-6, the state required average is 25 with the maximum at 30. And for grades 7-12, the average is set at 30 with the maximum class size listed as 35.
Evans said that Rutherford County Schools is meeting those ratios. That doesn’t mean that classrooms aren’t overcrowded. But to Evans, overcrowded means a need for more concrete classrooms and core facilities that would be more manageable for teachers.
“Everyone would prefer for us to have actual schools for our current needs and projected growth,” Evans said.
While new schools tend to increase the property value for homes nearby and generate higher property taxes, Mitchell said those extra tax dollars do not necessarily go to building new schools. School construction is funded through bond issues and is part of a capital budget plan. The bond issues are discussed each year with the Rutherford County Commission for the construction of new schools or additions.
The recent tax increase in Rutherford County will help pay for school operations and debt service.
More schools also will mean more rezoning, which can cause anxiety for parents and homeowners. At a meeting in October 2018, the school board discussed ways to ensure schools were not overcrowded by population. Many parents talked about how they had bought their homes based on the school zone and how their children were invested in their particular school’s academic and sports programs.
Other common parent concerns were households that have children in multiple schools and people who live next to one school but are zoned for a school farther away.
According to Evans, these issues will persist.
“We must rezone anytime a new school is opened or when space is available at another school, and (we) can help relieve overcrowding at other schools.”