Making space in one of the nation’s fastest growing districts

What do you do when your school district grows by 12,000 students in 10 years?

In Rutherford County Schools in central Tennessee, the answer is build. One of the fastest growing districts in the nation, Rutherford’s enrollment rose from 29,600 in 2003-04 to 41,000 this year. It is now the fifth-largest in the state behind districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

The county is a Nashville suburb, and was ranked third in the nation for job growth in 2013 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Affordable housing and available jobs led to a population boom of more than 40 percent since the 2000 census, to about 281,000 residents now.

“Most of our schools were built for 1,000 students, so we’ve grown by the equivalent of 12 schools in 10 years,” says Rutherford County Schools spokesperson James Evans. “But the growth is spread from one end of the county to the other, which is very hard for building planning.”

Between 2003 and 2013, the district opened 10 new schools and built additions on 10 more. In December, the board of education voted to adopt a five-year, $234.6 million plan to build and expand schools, and to eliminate 57 of the district’s 146 portable classrooms. The community will vote each year on the tax increases supporting the building plan, with the next vote scheduled for June.

The school board and county commission must compromise to determine funding as the student population grows each year. It’s difficult to get additional funds for operations and hiring new administrators as the commission tries to keep tax increases to a minimum, Evans says, but district needs have been met thus far.

The construction is typically funded by a combination of county bonds and the district’s capital projects budget.

“With the growth boom, it’s so important that the school board and county leaders are talking about these issues and working together,” Evans says. “If we were at odds with each other, there would be gridlock, and in the end students would be the ones who suffer.”

The most recent state report card for school systems indicates that Rutherford County Schools spent $980 less per pupil annually than the state average. Despite this and the rapid enrollment growth, the district has maintained a high level of academic achievement, and is one of the top-performing school systems in the state.

Evans credits much of the success to professional learning communities in which teachers and principals collaborate and solve building-level problems.

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