How Crowded Are Our Schools?

Overcrowding thumbnail“My kids eat lunch at 10am and 2pm!” A mom shared this with me the other day about Collinswood Language Academy, which has so many students that the cafeteria is stretched beyond capacity; lunch is served in shifts throughout the school day. Unconventional lunchtimes are a common and yet often overlooked aspect of overcrowding in our schools.

Our schools are filled to the gills, and we keep growing. If you are a student, parent, or employee at a CMS school, chances are you have experienced a building that is at or above capacity. You may have personally witnessed the trailers, the packed hallways, perhaps even the students sitting on tables when teachers can’t squeeze enough desks into a classroom.

My four years on the CMS Bond Oversight Committee have given me a long, clear look at the overcrowding crisis.


Surprising statistics to share:

  • 78% of our schools are either totally full or more than full.
  • Another 11% are nearly full, at 90-99% capacity
  • That leaves only 11% of schools below 90% capacity.
  • Albemarle Road Elementary (trailers shown above), our most crowded school, has nearly twice as many students than its buildings are designed for. It’s at 198% capacity. You can see crowding data for all CMS schools here.
  • Charlotte is the second-fastest growing big city in the United States. Its population is expected to surge by 47% between 2010 and 2030.
  • As the population grows, so does the number of students we serve. Last year, we had 145,000 students. We anticipate 21,000 more students by 2024.
  • We currently rely on approximately 1100 mobile units (affectionately known as learning cottages…or trailers) for classrooms.
  • If we were to build enough classrooms to eliminate mobiles today, we’d need 15.5 new elementary schools, 4.8 new middle schools, and 2.4 new high schools.
  • Land is becoming more scarce and expensive. The cost of labor and materials is rising. The longer we wait to build new schools, the more it costs, and the fewer options we have for locations.

It’s a serious situation that we need to address soon.

There’s Good News Too

I consider myself a realistic optimist. The glass might not be half full, but at least it’s a quarter full.

The good news is that voters recognize the need for schools. For instance, the most recent school bond referendum in 2013 passed by record numbers. (I served on the steering committee, coordinating  parental involvement in the bond campaign.) Mecklenburg County requested $290 million for school capital projects, and it was overwhelmingly approved.

However, the amount requested and approved was too small for the need. As a comparison, Wake County – a slightly smaller school district – asked voters to approve $810 million in school bonds. Voters said yes.

The other good news is that we’re efficient when we build schools, especially compared to other North Carolina districts. The elementary schools built by CMS in 2014 averaged $159 per square foot; the average in the rest of the state was $199 per square foot. (Source: NC Department of Public Instruction School Clearinghouse

How to Fix This

You may know that CMS and the school board have no funding authority. It is the role of the county and our county commissioners to authorize the timing and the amounts of bond referendums. Once a bond referendum is on the ballot, it is up to the voters to say yes or no. The school district can only ask for what it needs, in hopes that the county and voters will respond to the request.

Are you concerned about overcrowding in our schools? Urge your school board members to plan for more classrooms. Support your county commissioners in approving a bond referendum to address the need for more schools. Then, encourage your fellow citizens to vote to pass the bond. It is up to all of us to make a strong case for building schools so that our children can focus on learning and our teachers can focus on teaching.

Overcrowding Infographic