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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Construction proceeds at Heartland Elementary School in South Jordan this month.

Leaders in a handful of Utah's growing school districts that are years behind in building projects and are operating schools that are well over capacity say a lull in the housing market could be good news, giving them time to play catch-up.

Davis School District leaders say they are two years behind in their building projects due to unprecedented rapid growth. Two of the district's junior highs have larger enrollments than some of Davis' high schools. And despite the district opening two new elementary schools and a high school this fall, schools are still packed.

In Jordan School District 10 elementary schools are operating well over capacity with more than 1,000 students.

Two years down the road Alpine will be opening up a new high school, a new junior high and two elementary schools but could still lag behind the growth.

Leaders from each of the districts say the problem stems from explosive, unprecedented growth. That, coupled with rapidly inflating construction costs, has posed problems for growing school districts.

Chase Rogers, planning director for Davis School District, said construction costs have nearly doubled in the past five years. For example, when West Point Junior High was being built five years ago, the district's bill was around $102 per square foot. To build that exact same school today would cost nearly $190 per square foot.

"We anticipated construction costs would go up by a third — they have doubled and no one anticipated this," Rogers said.

Rogers said the rising costs can be attributed to more global competition for materials like steel and cement. And with a limited labor pool currently in the construction industry, it creates a perfect storm for rocketing costs, Rogers said.

But aside from high costs, the birthrates and in-migration rates are so rapid in some areas of the state that it is nearly impossible to keep up.

"You only can do so many projects at a time," he said.

However, school leaders hope the drop in home sales will give the districts a breather. And officials from Washington School District, which is on the very end of their enrollment influx, say it will do just that.

Rogers said during the past five years in Davis County building permits have been going at a rate around 3,000 a year. Last year they dropped to 2,500, and this year only about 1,300 permits were sought.

In Alpine and Jordan the situation is similar.

The lull in new home construction has been felt statewide, and Washington District leaders say the slowdown was their saving grace.

"The growth occurred just a little earlier for us than it did in northern Utah, but we've been in the very same situation that they're in where we were just behind — but we have already taken the breath that they're anticipating," said Marshall Topham, associate superintendent in Washington School District.

A few years earlier Washington County was the fastest-growing county per capita in the nation, with the student population growing anywhere from 6 percent to 9 percent per year. Then last year it dropped down to around 2 percent growth. That year allowed the district to catch up.

"We thought we would never get the buildings done and we would be full when we opened them, but because of that year we are very comfortable in terms of room," Topham said. "Because of the slowdown in growth, our new buildings will be able to accommodate the students easily and we will have room for growth."

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