The Elmbrook school board approved a $2.65 million expansion plan and other short-term solutions to the overcrowding problem at Swanson Elementary School at a meeting Tuesday, March 15.
Swanson has seen its student body grow from 678 in 2012 to 807 this semester. Even across three separate lunch periods, that population cannot be accommodated by the school cafeteria's 231-student limit.
The first element of the motion approved by the board calls for a 4,800-square-foot expansion to the school's cafeteria. The expansion also will act as extra gym and multi-purpose space. In addition to that new space, the plan for facility improvements at Swanson includes modular space, a new hallway to improve flow around the school and some other minor improvements.
"One of the core tenants of our recommendation is right-sizing and creating a proportionate fix to our common spaces with what happened in 1996," Elmbrook assistant superintendent Erik Kass said, referring to a 1996 expansion at Swanson that included an increase in classroom space but not common areas.
A distribution issue
The district says that the project's costs will not exceed $2.65 million. School board members Glen Allgaier and Thomas Gehl voted against Tuesday's recommendations, citing the cost.
"My concern is that this will cost (up to $2.6) million out of our budget that cannot be applied to instruction," Allgaier said.
Allgaier noted that a task force has been established to provide long-term solutions to improve balance between the district's five elementary schools.
"Can we handle this for one more year?" Allgaier said. "Given the capacity that we have in the district (can we see) if we can relieve all these problems in Swanson a year from now?"
Swanson currently has a functional capacity of 623 students. With the cafeteria expansion, that figure will increase to 754 to 795. The district currently has a surplus of 176 to 316 seats across its elementary schools.
"Our total K5 enrollment is flat from five years ago," Gehl said. "We have a distribution issue."
School board president Kathryn Wilson spoke strongly in favor of the motion, including the facility improvements.
"Money is available right now. Our budget is in a position where we can absorb this expense, the economy is in a position where we can borrow at a low rate," Wilson said. "We have an opportunity to equip this community for the next 30 years and I am loathe to ignore that opportunity."
District officials cited high birth rates in recent years in the district as proof that student population will continue to increase in the years to come.
"Over the next four years, we're projected to have the largest kindergarten classes that we've had over the last 15 years," Kass said.
In addition to the facility improvements, the district also will be implementing an enrollment management strategy that would see the district send 28 Swanson students to other elementary schools within the Elmbrook School District.
The district will be transferring non-resident and intra-district transfer students at Swanson to Burleigh, Dixon or Tonawanda beginning in the 2016-17 school year and thereafter.
The enrollment management strategy also includes offering families in tracts 113, 144, 180 and 181 the option to relocate their children to other elementary schools. Students will be allowed to use new or existing bus routes to travel from those tracts to Dixon Elementary School starting next year.
The district's plans also include incentives for families currently located in all nine Swanson tracts who elect for their children to attend Dixon, Burleigh or Tonawanda elementary schools. Stipends of $600 may be made available to families in the Swanson district if their children voluntarily attend one of the other aforementioned elementary schools. The establishment of a new bus route from tracts 180 and 181 would depend on the number of families who opt into the program; if under 30 were to do so, the district would offer stipends rather than the bus route. The stipend's purpose is to offset travel and time costs.
In total, district officials have estimated the enrollment management strategies' costs at approximately $47,000 — $35,000 to run the bus route to Dixon and $12,000 based on an estimate of 20 families taking advantage of the stipend program.
Last month, Kass said that the cost could increase if students from outside the district choose not to continue to attend Elmbrook schools if forced to transfer from Swanson. That cost has been estimated at approximately $6,500 per student.
Parents weigh in
A number of residents took to the podium to express their own opinions on the matter Tuesday night. Deborah Nustad has had three children go through Swanson and she says the difference in the student population over the years has been more than noticeable.
"As a parent in the district, as a taxpayer, as a homeowner whose property tax is inextricably linked to our school district, I don't think waiting another year is going to change anything except higher frustration on the part of parents, staff," Nustad said.
Christine Schnabl was part of the committee that explored solutions for Swanson last fall and helped the school district to arrive at these proposals.
"It was amazing to learn that the school has had classroom additions but the gym and cafeteria remains as it was in 1963," Schnabel said. "Swanson needs short-term enrollment relief, short-term space relief and building investment."