In February, Island residents will vote on two ballot measures: a bond measure to fix overcrowding and a levy renewal that pays for 100 teachers and programs not fully funded by the state. For many people, the bond measure raises the question of what is causing the growing student enrollment.
Mercer Island schools are among the best in the state, but they are overcrowded and the problem is getting worse. This year the district is now more than 700 students over capacity and projections show more students are coming. The district is squeezing these extra students into 34 portable classrooms. In fact, some schools have nine portables and have run out room for more.
This overcrowding is impacting students’ education. Portables don’t allow for individualized learning. Common areas are crowded and over scheduled. Lunch times are compressed. Elementary school recreation space is constricted by portables.
When we all routinely drive by cranes and construction crews in the Town Center, it is easy to assume the new high-density housing is driving this student growth. In fact this is not the case. Currently, there are only 116 students who have home addresses corresponding to the Town Center. This represents less than 3 percent of the student population. Nor is it due to the districts past Open Enrollment Policy, that allowed off-Island students to attend Mercer Island schools. This ended in 2008 and there are only 74 Open Enrollment students remaining with graduation lowering this number every year.
A closer look at the numbers and some Island history tells us what is really going on. Like the rest of the region, Mercer Island experienced dramatic growth as the post-war baby boom generation moved to the suburbs. During the decade of the 1960s alone, the Island doubled in population. The majority of this growth was young families with many children. In 1960 the average age on the Island was only 23 and there were only 147 residents over 75 years of age.
For our schools, the result was big enrollment swings in past decades as this surge of children moved through the district. However, Mercer Island is not likely to experience such large swings again in school age populations primarily because the Island is now a largely built out residential city and we have a broader age distribution amongst our Island residents.
Today we have a much more diverse age population. This is the key driver of the steady enrollment growth we have been experiencing. The average Islander is now 44 years old and there more than 2,400 residents over the age of 75 years old. The bottom line is all the new families we are seeing around the Island are the result of our housing stock undergoing regular change overtime. Given this increased age diversity of the residents, the school district population is likely to increase steadily; however, it is unlikely to experience the extreme swings in enrollment seen in the previous decades.
Paul Bergman, Hillary Benson and Ralph Jorgenson, are members of the Volunteer Campaign for the 2014 MISD School Bond and Levy. For more go to www.fixovercrowding.com.