By next year, teachers at Sandburg Elementary School will lose one of the last places in the building they have to give students extra help.
Instead, the school will use the room now being used to help students with disabilities — roughly the size of a studio apartment — as classroom space, the latest accommodation made over the last few years in response to growing enrollment at the Far East Side school that has hovered around 100 percent capacity for years. In five years, enrollment projections put the school at 107 percent capacity.
With six schools over 100 percent capacity and nine to be at or over that mark within five years, the Madison School District faces a familiar dilemma of how to relieve crowded schools. The situation raises the question of how to pay, and if any solutions include new construction, additions or renovations.
Most of the district’s four dozen school buildings are not considered crowded and many are under capacity. According to the district, schools considered over capacity were by an average of no more than one extra student per classroom.
In a November report, the district outlined the schools that need attention. At 97 percent capacity, Sandburg is considered to be the seventh-highest crowded school. At Sandburg, that means book rooms are now classrooms and the school has one room to use as its gymnasium, cafeteria and auditorium.
To make do, students there now eat lunch in their classrooms. Principal Brett Wilfrid also recently spent $30,000 of his school’s budget to install doors between several classrooms to accommodate more than two classes of students in two classrooms.
“That’s tens of thousands of dollars that could have been used for books,” he said.
Wilfrid also surrendered his office to the school’s speech and language clinicians, who gave up their office to accommodate a student with special needs. And one room previously considered a closet is being used as a classroom, Wilfrid said.
“It’s not a very pretty picture there,” said Heather Banschbach, Parent Teacher Association president and the parent of a
second- and third-grader. “Kids can’t learn if they don’t have adequate space. They have dedicated teachers there, and have a great principal that supports everybody. It’s not the teaching team, it’s literally the physical space.”
First-grade teacher Jennifer Wolfe said she worries about behavior problems, too, in the cramped environment and carefully diagrams which students should sit where to avoid any such issues.
Four elementary schools are considered more crowded than Sandburg, above 100 percent capacity this school year, according to the district’s report. Of those schools, five-year enrollment projections show Hawthorne will grow to be at 125 percent capacity while Midvale will be at 114 percent capacity.
Jefferson and Hamilton middle schools are at 102 and 103 percent capacity, respectively. Hamilton will rise to 107 percent by the 2018-19 school year, according to district projections.
Those figures are based on the number of seats for students in each building. Officials say that provides an incomplete picture of the number of students a school can reasonably support. So they are also reviewing how to better calculate capacity to reflect the needs of each school’s students.
After that study is presented to the School Board in March, talks of a referendum could follow as a possible solution, said board member Marj Passman.
“The public has always been very generous,” Passman said. “They know we’ve had limited funds, and I think they would be very supportive. I think we are a well-run school district now. … I think they’ll realize this is a necessity.”
Passman said there have been just “minimal” talks about a referendum thus far, but said that could be a way to solve some of the crowding issues in the district.
At the March meeting, board members will discuss how to handle crowding issues in the short term and long term, and how to fund any agreed-upon fixes, business services director Mike Barry said.
Barry said the board will prioritize each school’s capacity issues as either immediately pressing or better suited for a long-term solution.
Building a new school or adding on to existing schools could be part of that discussion, but the district isn’t making any recommendations at this point, he said.
Earlier this school year, the district and board talked about revisiting discussions about how to address enrollment issues on the district’s East Side, which have dated back seven years, Barry said. One idea was to look at building a new school on land that the district owns on Sprecher Road to help relieve crowding in the Kennedy Elementary School area, Barry has said.
Board member Dean Loumos said a referendum is a possibility but hasn’t been discussed. He said he hopes the board will consider “creative” solutions.
“Some of the needs might hit the level where we have to take it to the community,” Loumos said. “We need more detail before doing something like that ... that’s a huge decision to make. We’re not ruling it out, and we’re not saying we’re going to do it.”
Banschbach said a building referendum is a good idea, but even if voters pass one soon it won’t be in time to meet Sandburg’s immediate needs. She said she and other Sandburg parents and teachers have addressed the board for years, but turnover among district administrators and the School Board has helped stall any movement.
“It’s no one person’s fault ... but we’re also at a point where we need something done,” Banschbach said.
Board member T.J. Mertz said that sometime in the next six or seven months the board will begin a process of seriously looking at facilities issues, including whether to embark upon the contentious fix of changing any of the district’s school boundaries, among other solutions.
“In multiple areas we’re either at or will be very, very soon at or over capacity, and we continue to have schools that are fairly well under capacity,” Mertz said. “There’s going to have to be something done ... and I’m of the get-started-with-this-sooner-rather-than-later school.”