In Our View: Schools at Bursting Point

Issue of overcrowding, a problem at several districts, likely to linger for years

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While reformers often point to class size as a determinant in the quality of public education, the issue of overcrowded buildings typically goes overlooked. That is, until the problem becomes too prominent to ignore — a situation that has several Clark County school districts feeling a pinch these days.

Take Battle Ground, which in recent years has been one of the fastest-growing school districts in the state. According to a recent article by Columbian reporter Justin Runquist, about 7 percent of the district’s 13,000 students take classes in portable classrooms, and that figure is expected to double in the next three years.

Or take the Washougal district. That’s where Jemtegaard Middle School is housing 480 students in a facility initially designed for 320. And that’s where Gause Elementary has 613 students — about 100 more than capacity. Washougal likewise has added portable classrooms to various schools, but room is running out. “We’re over building capacity and we’re at portable capacity,” district facilities director Joe Steinbrenner said of Gause. The kicker: Enrollment in the Washougal School District, at 3,127 students this year, is expected to grow to about 3,600 by 2023.

Such is the conundrum facing school districts in Clark County’s small cities, and they need look no further than Portland to understand the inherent dilemma. In the 1960s, Portland Public Schools went on a building spree to accommodate a growing populace. But within decades, Adams, Jackson, Marshall, Monroe and Washington high schools had closed as enrollment shrunk.

Locally, enrollment is growing, but school districts — and voters — must take their best guess as to whether that growth will be sustained for decades. There’s a permanence — not to mention an expense — that comes with constructing a new school.

Not that the situation is unique to Battle Ground or Washougal. Voters in the Camas, Ridgefield and Woodland districts have faced similar questions in recent years and have approved construction bonds. (As an aside, our namesake county in Nevada earlier this year announced that 10 public schools will go to a year-round schedule starting this fall in an effort to deal with school overcrowding).

The issues involved with overcrowding go beyond a lack of comfort or a lack of luxury for students and teachers. As the U.S. Department of Education notes, “A growing body of research has linked student achievement and behavior to the physical building conditions and overcrowding.” For example, “A study of the District of Columbia school system found, after controlling for other variables such as a student’s socioeconomic status, that students’ standardized achievement scores were lower in schools with poor building conditions.”

Local observers will point to the 2012 state Supreme Court decision in McCleary v. Washington as a possible solution to overcrowding. The theory is that, by forcing the Legislature to adequately fund K-12 public education, school districts will be less reliant upon local levies for funding. This could provide the neediest districts with adequate funding without the entire burden falling upon local taxpayers — but it likely will take years to see how it all plays out.

In the meantime, local school districts are faced with rapidly growing enrollments and the problems that come with that. MaryBeth Lynn, assistant superintendent in Battle Ground, told The Columbian, “If you look at Battle Ground High School now, they’re bursting at the seams.” Many schools in Clark County can relate.