Rezonings can add more students, strain Charlotte schools

Shamrock elementary school kindergartner teacher Ashleigh McClahan read 'The Kissing Hand' to her students on the first day of class, on Monday, August 24,2015.
Shamrock elementary school kindergartner teacher Ashleigh McClahan read 'The Kissing Hand' to her students on the first day of class, on Monday, August 24,2015.

When the Charlotte City Council argues about whether to approve new development projects, traffic is typically the No. 1 worry: How many new cars will a new apartment building or shopping center add to already congested streets?

But on Monday, council members brought up another issue that doesn’t usually get as much attention: school crowding. How many students will dense, new developments add to already overcrowded schools?

Although the City Council is generally in favor of adding more density in close-in neighborhoods, many of those areas have crowded schools. The increases in density can be dramatic. For example, in a redevelopment of the Colony apartments in SouthPark approved Monday, 353 aging apartments will be replaced with 990 new units, along with stores, offices and a hotel.

Most of the council discussion and community concerns focused on traffic. But the new apartments are estimated to add many more students to local schools.

“CMS has said this will cost them $3.4 million in additional capacity, trailers, etc., for the already overcrowded schools,” said Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat. The new apartments are estimated to bring 88 more students than the current apartments.

Sharon Elementary would go from 146 percent of its capacity to 161 percent, Alexander Graham Middle would go from 116 percent to 119 percent, and Myers Park High would go from 113 percent to 115 percent of capacity.

One reason that discussion doesn’t usually take place is the fragmented decision-making around growth and development. The City Council controls zoning, which specifies how a piece of property can be used. But Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools gets most of its funding from the state and county. So, the body deciding what can be built where doesn’t specify where schools are needed and doesn’t factor that impact in nearly as much as traffic – which the city does have a hand in through local roads.

“There are consequences beyond just the city. We need to talk to our partners in the school board and the county as we grow,” Roberts said. “If our schools are going to succeed, we can’t just make our decisions in a silo.”

The same concerns came up again during a hearing about a proposal by Grubb Properties to build a mixed-use development on Park Road with up to 450 apartments in the first phase. Staff estimates showed that will boost enrollment at nearby schools.

“Selwyn Elementary is at 180 percent capacity,” said Roberts, who said she likes the project. “This doesn’t add that much, but it goes to 187 percent capacity. … We need to have that conversation with our schools about how we support those children.”

Council member Kenny Smith, a Republican, said that those estimates might be high. Because Grubb is planning to build smaller apartments under its Link brand, fewer families will likely rent them. The Link apartments are typically 150 square feet or so smaller than comparable apartments, allowing them to offer lower rent, and they target young, millennial renters.

Grubb Properties Vice President Rachel Russell said she only knows of two children in the company’s existing Link apartments.

“It’s not something that typically comes to our brand, but you’re right to consider it,” Russell said.

At-large council member Julie Eiselt, a Democrat, said the cumulative impact of all the developments being approved now is something the City Council should consider: “Taken together, that’s a big burden on the schools.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo