Ask a lot of young American families about their Top 10 desires
and you'll probably hear the following: a comfortable lifestyle,
for two careers, strong schools, and a large house amid plenty of of
Sounds nice. But add those dreams together and what you've got is
a crisis-in-the-making for a number of formerly rural school
Many families are on a quest for more space, lower-cost housing,
and more nurturing schools. Propelled by expanded highways and the
rise of telecommuting, more than a few are pushing into once-remote
areas. And their enthusiasm for country living is creating some
sticky situations for school boards.
Many towns across the United States were caught unawares by the
bumper crop of babies born in the 1980s. But in certain communities
it's not so much the jolt in birth rates that's crowding their
classrooms and accelerating spending. Instead, it's a shift in
population patterns that's got them scrambling to maintain their
traditional charm while accommodating a new population.
Take Bucks County, Pa. The population there jumped 6 percent -
from 541,000 residents to 574,000 - between 1990 and 1995. It's
continued to escalate, putting pressure on infrastructure -
particularly the school system.
"We went from no debt in 1990 to $175 million in debt by 1998,"
says Charles Baker, parent and member of the Central Bucks School
Board. "We had less than 10,000 students in 1990. We expect to hit
20,000 by 2002."
Central Bucks has coped with its population explosion by building
two new elementary schools and making major additions to four middle
schools and two high schools.
But two years ago, it drew the line. In an attempt to slow growth
and an enrollment that was severely straining the schools, the
board moved to buy development rights to $300 million-worth of farm
land in the area. The Pennsylvania school code, however, prohibited
a school district from buying land, so the county stepped in
buying $200 million of land with the approval of 83 percent of area
In neighboring Berks County - an area made newly attractive by the
opening of roads easing a commute to New York City - longtime
residents are facing some of the same worries.
"It's one of the really critical issues in this part of the
country," says John Kramer, director of Albright College's center
local government in Reading, Pa. "There's a whole series of spin-
effects" to the population increase specifically relating to
he points out. "There's an increase in the various school taxes,
although the increases don't necessarily offset the increased costs.
There's more wear and tear on the roads, more wear and tear on the
Annex a working farm?
It's not just Pennsylvania feeling such pressures. In Shrewsbury,
Mass., emotions ran high when the town, in an effort to cope with a
rising tide of new students, tried to annex half of a working farm
a site for a school.
The attempt failed, but many area residents were horrified by what
the move said about the changing nature of the countryside and the
increase in school population.
"The fact that they're building schools on this land is less of an
issue than the fact that you need these new schools at all," says
Wagner, director of field programs for the American Farmland Trust.
And even in areas where finding space to build is less of a
problem, changes in school-population patterns can create other
difficulties. Certain areas of Montana "saw painful growth in school
enrollment from 1991 through 1996," says Dori Nielson, director of
measurement and accountability for the Office of Public Instruction
in Helena. …