SOUTH JORDAN — Faced with crowded schools and unrelenting growth, Jordan School District officials have launched a fact-finding mission seeking the public's help in planning for the next two decades.
The number of students in the district has grown 60 percent since 2000 and is expected to double in 20 years, according to administrator of auxiliary services Scott Thomas. Each year, the district adds between 2,000 and 2,500 students — the equivalent of two elementary schools.
"We are in the process of getting input from every single resident in this community, whether they have a child in our school district or not," Jordan District spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf said. "We’re on a fact-finding mission."
The district recently held a town hall meeting on the subject of growth, and it plans to conduct a public survey next week to gauge interest in a variety of options to house the growing student population.
Those options include everything from issuing a bond for new buildings to using a combination of portable classrooms, eliminated programs, adapted scheduling and long-distance or "pocket" busing to less-populated areas to alleviate congestion.
A new middle school, Copper Mountain Middle School, is scheduled to open this fall, and a new elementary school in Herriman is planned for the 2014-15 school year. But with 260 portable classrooms currently being used, the district is effectively eight elementary schools behind the current population growth, with no sign of slowing in sight.
"I think everyone can agree that schools are an important component of a community’s infrastructure," Thomas said. "You have to have schools, and the only way we can come up with those is responsible bonding."
New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau rank South Jordan second among the nation's fastest-growing large cities. In one year, between July 2011 and July 2012, the population of South Jordan jumped 4.87 percent to 55,934, according to the bureau.
That figure mirrors the historical 4.8 percent annual growth in the Jordan School District since 2000. In addition to South Jordan, Herriman and Riverton have also seen rapid growth but fall below the 50,000 population required to be classified as a "large city" by the U.S. Census Bureau.
South Jordan spokesman Chip Dawson said city leaders knew the city was experiencing a high rate of growth, but it wasn't clear how high until they saw their census rankings.
"We knew how fast we were growing, but we had no idea relative to other parts of the country, so it was very surprising to be ranked that high," he said.
Dawson said roughly one out of every four new residences built in Salt Lake County is within South Jordan's boundaries. That level of growth presents challenges, he said, such as the need for schools, parks, services and infrastructure. But those challenges are ultimately outweighed by the increased business and community opportunities of an increasing population, Dawson said.
"Growth is always good, especially when it's been done in a sustainable manner," he said. "South Jordan has seen this upward trend in growth and has been making plans to become a sustainable community that can continue to grow."
Thomas also spoke positively about the opportunities that growth presents. He said the district has a healthy partnership with city leaders, and all parties involved are working to plan proactively for new residents.
"We welcome growth. With our cities, we welcome it," Thomas said. "We’re happy to be in a growing school district. We’re proud of that."
Jordan School District recently contracted with an independent real estate brokerage firm to study population growth in the district. The study found that for every 1,000 new households within the district's boundaries, 800 additional students arrive in schools.
Over the next 20 years, just under 50,000 students are expected to be added to the district's population, which would require approximately 32 new elementary schools, 10 new middle schools and five new high schools.
Riesgraf said overcrowding is so commonplace and expected that new schools are designed with portable classrooms in mind, and several schools in the district currently have 10 or more portables on their property.
"When you put that many portables on a school property, there are things you lose," she said. "We’re taking away playground space. Little by little, we’re taking things away that we want our children to have."
Absent a bond for new buildings, there are a number of housing alternatives that district officials have arranged on a spectrum from preferable to undesirable. On the preferable or acceptable side is the continued use of portables and the conversion of more schools, including secondary schools, to a year-round schedule.
On the undesirable side are boundary adjustments, pocket busing and potentially a double-session schedule, where half of a school's students attend classes from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., with the other half attending from the afternoon into the evening.
While that type of scheduling is extreme, officials say otherwise undesirable measures may become necessary without new revenue for construction.
"We want to know what our parents are willing to accept and what they’re not willing to accept," Riesgraf said. "At the end of the day, it's up to them how they want their children and their grandchildren educated. Do they want them educated in portables? Do they want them going to double session? Do they want pocket busing?"
Riesgraf said the school board has not taken any action on a bond proposal, but officials want to inform the community about the challenges schools are facing as discussions move forward. Should the community respond favorably to the idea of a bond, it would likely come to a vote in November's election.
The district last issued a bond in 2003, and it was supported by roughly 70 percent of votes, Riesgraf said. Since that time, 19 schools have been built in the district.
The district is planning to distribute a mailer next week directing residents to an online survey. The topic will also be discussed at the district's June town hall meeting, communications manager Steve Dunham said.
"We’ve been charged by our patrons to plan for the future," Dunham said. "Now we’ve gotten this information back 20 years out, and that’s why we’re putting together the survey because we want feedback from our patrons."