The biggest challenge facing the Wylie school district in the coming years looks a lot like the challenges of the past – exploding enrollment.
East Intermediate School opened in January to ease crowding at East Elementary and East Junior High, giving the district the space it needs for Pre-K through 8th-grade students for at least the next four or five years.
Now it’s time to address crowding at the High School, said Wylie Superintendent Joey Light.
Light discussed the past year and the challenges of the future in an interview with the Growl in early March. Here’s what he had to say about COVID 19, the new East Intermediate and needs at the high school.
The district appears to have met the challenges of COVID 19, and Light said he hopes the worst of that problem is in the rearview mirror.
The district did not offer online school this year because of the toll it takes on teachers. School and all activities resumed normal operation, and for the most part that went smoothly. The district did have to deal with two big spikes in COVID cases, Light said.
“They coincided with startups – August/September and then January,” he said. “That spike we had in January was staggering because it was such high numbers, but it was mild cases and they were recovering very quickly. We were pushed to the limit, and the staff met that challenge. We made it through that.”
The good news is that COVID numbers have declined nationally, local hospitalizations are decreasing and the district only had one case of COVID at the time of the interview. But Light said he doesn’t expect COVID to ever go away.
“I don’t think we will ever be through with COVID,” he said. “We will probably be looking at COVID like any communicable disease. We are still trying to be very conscientious when cleaning.”
EAST INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL
Wylie opened its newest campus in January off FM 1750 behind Oldham Lane Church of Christ. Fourth-graders moved to the campus after the Christmas break, giving some crowding relief to East Elementary. Next year, the campus will also house east-side fifth-graders giving relief to East Junior High.
“It has helped tremendously,” Light said. “That gives them several years for growth. It gives the board time to consider other options.”
Light said opening the campus at mid-semester and starting out with only half the students proved to be a blessing.
“We have been able to take care of the little problems we had,” he said. “It gives them a chance to ease into it. The traffic is an ongoing issue that we are working on. It gives the people with the city and state a chance to look at it.”
Light said traffic is particularly a problem in the morning when all the residents of the Potosi area are headed to work down 1750. But he said the state, which is responsible for 1750, is aware of the problem, and he expects some changes on the horizon.
“They have been very cooperative,” Light said. “I think there is going to be some resolution.”
WYLIE HIGH SCHOOL
The next big challenge for the district is at Wylie High School, which is already full and is looking at even more students in its future. The current 8th-grade class has 400 students, as do the classes behind it. The capacity at the high school is 1,350 students. The high school could be looking at 1,600 students in the next 2-3 years.
“As you look at your enrollment projects right now, we are on the cusp of it because the classes are getting so much bigger,” Light said. “Four hundred is getting to be the normal class size. That is hitting a little bit faster than we thought. We have added some portables to buy us time.”
Light said discussions are ongoing between administrators and the school board on both temporary and long-term solutions. He said many, many ideas have been thrown out.
“We are looking at a lot of different options,” he said. “At some point we know that we are going to have too many kids for the core facilities – the cafeteria, the library. At some point we are going to need to do something different. We are trying to buy some time.”
Light said adding 20 classrooms to the high school would solve the problem on a short-term basis. But that would cost about 10 million dollars, which the district does not have.
The district has a history of putting money into a construction fund each year so that it can save up the necessary funds to do construction without asking for a bond. However, the district just depleted its construction fund to build the new East Intermediate. So it will need a few years to save the money to build at the high school.
Another option would be to build a freshman campus. The district currently has 26 acres beside the current high school that would accommodate a freshman campus. It also owns 50 acres beside the new East Intermediate off 1750 that would be big enough for such a campus.
Light said the only real advantage to building a freshman campus on the 50 acres on the east side would be that it could eventually grow into a second high school 10 or 15 years down the road.
“There’s not a real appetite right now to purse that,” Light said. “That’s a big expense. There’s a lot of things that goes into that. It’s a hard sale.”
Light said the board is just in the discussion phase at the moment.
“We have all kinds of options,” he said. “We have thrown out lots of ideas. We are in the talking and brainstorming phase.”
For now, the board will continue to save money and build back its construction fund. However, the district might be looking at another bond election down the road if a big building project is required. The district currently is paying on two bonds. One was passed to build the Performing Arts Center and that one will be paid off in 2025. The other – used to build the East Junior High and expand on the East Elementary – won’t be paid off until 2038.
Light said the district could pass a new bond in 2025 and not have to raise taxes. But he said no plans for a bond have been discussed as of yet.
“I think we are getting a little time to make a decision,” he said. “We can do some sharing of classrooms that we haven’t done yet. It depends on the community and how long the community wants to wait. In the meantime, we are going to try to save as much money as we can.”