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North El Paso County population boom puts pressure on local school districts

March 12, 2017 Updated: March 13, 2017 at 6:49 am
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New-home construction is booming in Lewis-Palmer School District 38, necessitating a look at long-range planning. Submitted photo.

The northern section of El Paso County known as the Tri-Lakes region appears to be an epicenter of a significant housing boom.

Shannon Bingham, owner of Western Demographics, estimates that 2,350 new homes will be built in the area by 2024, with the majority being completed in the coming four years.

"Right now, it's one of the healthiest residential housing markets in the state," Bingham said.

That will bring up to 1,650 additional students to Lewis-Palmer School District 38, which this school year had record high enrollment of 6,577 students, and already is experiencing school crowding.

"The district's administration has done a great job of shuffling students without impacting programs, but now, they've run out of space," said Bingham, whose office is headquartered in Lyons. "We're at the breaking point."

In light of the growth, D-38 last spring hired Bingham's company and RTA Architects of Colorado Springs to provide long-range facilities planning and consulting services, said D-38 spokeswoman Julie Stephen.

The firms recently completed an assessment of existing school buildings and a demographic study.

A second community open house for the public to hear the results and give feedback will be held 6 p.m. Tuesday at Lewis-Palmer Middle School, 1776 Woodmoor Drive in Monument.

Stephen said about 100 people attended the first presentation on Feb. 13.

In addition, a Long-Term Facilities Planning Committee consisting of 20 community members, parents and staff will present scenarios for addressing enrollment projections at community open houses on April 10 and April 12.

Residents of Monument, Palmer Lake and Woodmoor aren't surprised, Bingham said.

"I think the acceleration and volume of construction is apparent to everyone," he said. "There is a natural response for local residents to be concerned about growth."

Solutions will be necessary in a few years, Bingham said: "In 24 months, D-38 will encounter problems in excess of what it can do with existing buildings and portable classrooms."

The school district's response to growth in 2010 was to reconfigure schools, switching from kindergarten through fifth for elementary schools to kindergarten through sixth grade, and converting a middle school to an elementary school. Middle school has encompassed seventh and eighth grades, and high school ninth through 12th grades.

"That's worked for quite a while," Bingham said.

But the district has continued to gain students, and when the economy started recovering, enrollment kicked up even more, he said, with 3.5 percent growth since the fall of 2015.

Ideas the committee is examining include reconfiguring grade levels at schools again, adjusting boundaries, building new schools, constructing additions on existing buildings and using portable classrooms.

Come fall, Ray Kilmer Elementary, Prairie Winds Elementary, Lewis-Palmer Elementary and Palmer Ridge High are expected to be full, with Bear Creek Elementary 93 seats over capacity, and the middle school over by 12 students.

Planning now is crucial, Bingham said, because D-38 is facing hundreds and hundreds of vacant developable lots in its boundaries, with large new developments that include Misty Acres, the Dunes at Woodmoor, Sanctuary Pointe, Village Center at Woodmoor, Forest Lakes and Lake of the Rockies, among others.

School districts have no say about development that municipal agencies approve.

"Parents are surprised we're not involved in what gets built where," Bingham said. "There's nothing that links us. We're an education delivery system and don't have an active role in land development."

In most communities, smaller builders and developers pay money for land acquisition for schools; larger businesses, of say 1,000 lots, dedicate a school site, usually 10 to 12 acres for an elementary school, Bingham said.

El Paso County has no development impact fees, so developers and builders do not pay for construction of brick-and-mortar schools, he added.

D-38 has four vacant sites for new schools - 8 acres adjacent to Bear Creek Elementary, nearly 10 acres in Forest Lakes, a plot the southeast corner of Highway 83 and Highway 105, and 12 acres at High Forest Ranch, at Highway 83 and Hodgen Road.

New school construction would require voter approval of a bond issue, Bingham said.

D-38 officials do not plan to bring any financing proposals forward for the November ballot, Stephen said.

D-38 also has deferred maintenance on heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, safety and security compliance and other needs at existing schools due to state budget reductions in education funding. Those also would need to be addressed in a ballot measure.

Voters in neighboring school districts, Academy School District 20 and Falcon School District 49, approved financing measures last November, and each district will build new schools and expand and renovate existing ones in upcoming years.

The towns of Monument and Palmer Lake have grown faster than El Paso County's 8 percent population increase between 2010 and 2015, said state demographer Elizabeth Garner.

El Paso County as a whole has lagged behind state averages in terms of growth, between 2010 and 2015, she said, when the state grew an average of 1.6 percent and El Paso County grew 1.5 percent.

But Garner thinks Colorado Springs and El Paso County have "turned the corner" in terms of new development.

"People are seeing the comparative advantage of El Paso County," she said, "and new leadership has helped."

Available land and affordable prices for buildable lots are factors that drive residential growth, Garner said, and the local public school system "is one of the most important pieces that planners look at."

Bingham said with the mild weather, some 300 new homes should be ready in the Tri-Lakes area in the next six months.

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